When you think of lead poisoning, older homes with peeling paint may come to mind. You might think that if you live in a newer home or your paint is intact, it’s not something you need to worry about.
However, lead-based paint is only one source of lead poisoning. You’ll also find the toxin in contaminated soil, water pipes, imported toys and materials from certain occupations or hobbies. You can be exposed to lead by ingesting it, inhaling it or contacting contaminated surfaces.
We talked to Bryan Kuhn, PharmD, a pharmacist and poison education specialist with Banner Health, to learn more about identifying and preventing lead poisoning.
Signs of lead poisoning
Lead poisoning is dangerous for everyone, but children and pregnant women and their unborn babies are at increased risk for problems. Here are some signs and symptoms of lead exposure:
- Developmental delays: Babies and children might not sit up, crawl, walk or talk at the pace they should
- Learning problems: Lead exposure can cause difficulties with attention, learning, memory and problem-solving
- Behavioral problems: You may notice hyperactivity, irritability, aggression or impulsivity
- Lack of coordination
- Numbness or tingling in the hands and feet
- Fatigue, weakness or decreased activity levels
- Digestive issues such as nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, constipation or weight loss
- Loss of appetite: Less interest in eating or aversion to certain foods
- Speech and language difficulties which in turn can lead to delays or issues in communication
- Hearing problems
- Kidney disease
- Impaired bone growth or bone demineralization
- High blood pressure
- Delirium, seizures and coma in severe cases
Lots of different health conditions could cause these symptoms—lead exposure isn’t always the culprit. But if you notice any of these symptoms, talk to your child’s pediatrician or another health care provider about the possibility of lead exposure.
“While children are at the highest risk, adults who have certain jobs or take part in certain hobbies can also be at risk,” Dr. Kuhn said. You’re more likely to develop lead poisoning if you engage in auto radiator repair, target shooting, recasting lead for bullets, firing range instruction, bullet salvage, lead smelting, metal welding or shipbreaking.
How to reduce your risk of lead exposure
“Inhaling the dust from lead-containing paint or ingesting paint chips, lead solder, bullets, fishing weights or contaminated well water all pose a risk,” Dr. Kuhn said. Most of the time, you can avoid lead poisoning in children. “Storing products that contain lead out of reach and sight of children can help dramatically decrease the likelihood of ingestion.”
You can take additional steps to reduce the odds that you and your family will be poisoned by lead. The United States banned lead-based paint in 1978. If your home was built before then, you’ll want to:
- Have it inspected for lead-based paint hazards, if you haven’t already done so.
- Keep it well-maintained and clean to minimize lead particles in dust.
- Hire certified contractors who follow lead-safe work practices if you do renovations or repairs.
- Clean hands, toys and surfaces regularly, especially before eating, after playing outside and at bedtime.
Lead can enter your drinking water, so:
- Test your water for lead, especially if you have lead pipes or plumbing.
- Run the water before you drink it or cook with it, especially if you haven’t used it in a while.
- Use water filters that are certified to remove lead if levels are high.
Good nutrition can make a difference, too. A healthy diet rich in calcium, iron and vitamin C can help reduce lead absorption in the body. And be sure children have nutritious snacks and meals. That way, they won’t be as likely to ingest non-food items that could contain lead.
How to check for lead poisoning
It’s crucial for children to be screened for lead poisoning since symptoms usually don’t appear right away. “Children with elevated blood levels of lead who don’t have symptoms are the group most at risk for long-term toxicity,” Dr. Kuhn said. “Subtle effects on their growth, hearing and neurologic (nervous system) development can go undiagnosed.” Pregnant women and people in high-risk jobs or hobbies might also need to be screened.
Children should be screened from age six months to two years, and children aged three to six years should be screened if they haven’t already been tested. The test involves taking a small blood sample and measuring the amount of lead in it.
How lead poisoning is treated
If you have high levels of lead in your blood, you can take medication. Drug therapy binds to the excess lead in the blood, so your body eliminates it. “It can take weeks to months before lead levels return to normal and symptoms subside,” Dr. Kuhn said. You’ll also want to identify and remove any sources of lead, so the poisoning stops.
To help keep lead poisoning from affecting others, you can also get involved in community efforts to prevent lead poisoning. You may want to advocate for safe housing, promote lead-free environments and support initiatives that raise awareness and prevent lead exposure.
The bottom line
Lead poisoning is dangerous, but it’s almost always preventable. You can take steps to protect yourself, your family and your community. And screening can help ensure that if lead poisoning does occur, it can be treated as quickly as possible.
To learn more about your risk for lead poisoning and what you can do to lower it, connect with an expert at Banner Health.