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Lead is a metal found in the earth’s crust. It can be found in air, water and soil. It has been mined, processed and used in many products for thousands of years. When lead enters the body it is a poison and can be harmful.
Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body. It can get into the body when you breathe or swallow dust that contains lead. Lead affects almost every body system; even small amounts of lead can be harmful.
You may be exposed to lead in many ways:
- Spending time in areas where lead-based paints have been used and are deteriorating. Housing built before 1978 is more likely to contain lead-based paint. Lead-based paint in good condition is usually not a problem, but chipping, peeling or chalking lead-based paint may be harmful to everyone living or visiting the house. Lead-based paint may also be found on toys, furniture and playground equipment.
- Working in a job or doing a hobby where lead is used. People who work in a lead environment may bring lead dust into their car or home on their clothes and body, potentially exposing their children to lead. Welding, auto or boat repair, making ceramics, stained glass, target shooting at firing ranges, furniture refinishing and home remodeling are jobs and hobbies that may expose you to lead.
- Eating food or drinking water that contains lead. Water pipes in some older homes may contain lead solder. Lead from solder is most commonly found in homes built between 1970 and 1985. When water sits in the pipes lead may get into the water. If this happens, the water you use for drinking, cooking or mixing baby formula can cause lead poisoning.
Children are at the greatest risk of lead poisoning. However, people of any age, race or economic level can get lead poisoning. Children’s small bodies absorb more lead than adult bodies do and the lead harms them more because their bodies are still growing. Children also are more likely to absorb lead dust because they place hands and other objects in their mouths.
Young children can be exposed to lead by eating lead-based paint chips, chewing on objects painted with lead-based paint or swallowing house dust or soil that contains lead.
Children with high levels of lead in their bodies may have stomachaches, decreased appetite, hyperactivity, sleeping problems or irritability. Because these symptoms are like other childhood problems, lead poisoning is sometimes mistaken for other ailments. Many children with lead poisoning don't show any signs of being sick, so it's important to eliminate lead risks at home and to have young children tested for lead exposure.
Children with elevated lead levels may suffer from learning disabilities, lowered IQ, behavioral problems, hyperactivity, stunted growth, speech delay and hearing impairment. Convulsions, coma and death can occur at very high lead levels. Childhood lead poisoning can cause problems later in life, such as behavioral problems and high blood pressure.
A blood lead test is the only way to find out if a child has lead poisoning. A doctor or nurse takes blood from a child’s finger or arm. The blood sample is sent to a laboratory to find out how much lead it contains. Children should be tested at 12 months and again at age 2. Additional testing may be necessary for children who are exposed to lead. Your health care provider can perform these tests.
Adult lead poisoning commonly occurs in the workplace. Workers may breathe lead dust and fumes or swallow lead dust while eating, drinking or smoking on-the job. Adults can also be exposed to lead during certain hobbies (e.g. making ceramics, target shooting, etc.) where lead is used.
People with high levels of lead in their bodies may not seem sick. The symptoms that occur are very general and can happen for many reasons. Overexposure to lead can cause serious damage even if the person has no symptoms. A blood test for lead is the only way to find out if an adult has lead poisoning. Some common symptoms of lead poisoning in adults are:
- Tiredness or weakness
- Trouble sleeping
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty concentrating
- Don’t allow children to chew or put their mouth on surfaces that may have been painted with lead-based paint.
- If you think you have lead in your pipes, run water that has been standing in pipes overnight before drinking or cooking with it.
- Wash your child’s hands, face, pacifiers and toys frequently.
- Clean your house often to get rid of dust and dirt.
- Give your child foods high in iron and calcium (e.g., eggs, spinach, yogurt, milk, etc.) to reduce the amount of lead their bodies take in.
- Use proper safety measures when renovating or remodeling your house.
- If you work in lead environments, remove shoes when coming indoors so lead dust is not tracked inside. Also, wash work clothes separately from other clothes.