Frequently Asked Questions

What is lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning is a condition caused by exposure to lead resulting in high blood lead levels. Excess lead may also be stored in the bones and organs of the body. Lead can enter the body through swallowing (ingestion) or breathing (inhalation).  Because you cannot see or smell lead, exposure can often occur without your knowledge.

Most children with lead poisoning do not have any signs or symptoms of the disease and may seem perfectly healthy. Often, the only way to detect lead poisoning in a child is through a blood lead test. While there are usually no immediate symptoms of the disease, childhood lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities, language and behavioral problems, lower I.Q., attention deficit disorder, hearing loss, anemia, muscle weakness, damage to nervous system and kidneys, and rarely death.

There is no effective treatment for lead poisoning, but it can be prevented through the identification and removal of any lead hazards from a child’s environment. If a child’s lead level is very high (≥ 45µg/dL), chelation therapies may be used to help remove the lead from a child’s blood, but will not reverse the damage that is already done. 

Who is at the highest risk for lead poisoning?

Children six months to six years of age, living at or below the poverty level who live in older housing. The most common risk factor for childhood lead poisoning is living in a home built before 1978. The use of residential lead-based paint was banned in 1978, so it could be present in any home built before that time. A majority of homes built before 1950 used lead-based paint as there were few other paint types available. As the lead-based paint breaks down, lead-contaminated dust and paint chips are released into the environment and become a potential source of lead exposure. 

Young children are also at greater risk for lead poisoning due to their frequent hand-to-mouth behavior. Additionally, when exposed to lead, children absorb a greater amount of lead in their body than adults do, increasing their risk of lead poisoning.

How does lead get into the body?

Lead typically enters the body through ingestion (swallowing) or inhalation (breathing). Over time, all paint deteriorates, especially on high friction surfaces such as windowsills and doorways. When lead-based paint deteriorates, lead-contaminated dust and paint chips are produced. The lead-contaminated dust and paint chips can cover nearby surfaces, objects, and soil. Children may be exposed through inhalation by breathing in the lead-contaminated dust. 

Children may also be exposed by eating (ingesting) the lead-contaminated dust, paint chips, or soil. This can happen if a child puts a lead-contaminated toy or other object in their mouth and chews on it. Ingestion can also occur when children put their fingers in their mouth after playing in areas with lead-contaminated dust or soil. If a home has leaded pipes or there is lead contamination in the drinking water, children may also get lead into their body through drinking water. Lead poisoning can happen slowly through several small exposures to lead or very quickly through a large exposure to lead. 

What are the sources of lead exposure?

What is an elevated blood lead level (EBLL)?

Blood lead is measured in micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL). A blood lead level of 3.5 µg/dL or greater is considered an EBLL. Although there is no scientific evidence on a safe level of lead in the blood, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has set an action level for children of 3.5 µg/dL at which recommended specific interventions should be implemented to reduce the blood lead levels. If your child has a blood lead test with a result of 3.5 µg/dL or greater, you will receive a letter and educational information from our program asking that you either obtain a confirmatory (repeat) test or that you obtain a follow-up test on your child to monitor that lead levels are going down. A blood lead level will go down when a child is no longer being exposed to a source of lead. 

How do I know if my child has been poisoned by lead?

Most children with an elevated blood lead level or EBLL have no obvious signs and symptoms. A blood test is the only sure way to know if your child has lead poisoning. Remember to ask your child’s doctor to perform a blood lead test on your child at 12 months and again at 24 months of age.

Where can I take my child to have a lead test?

You can request your child have a blood lead test at their primary care physician’s office.  Depending on the doctor, they may be able to collect a sample for the blood lead test in their office or they may give you a slip to take your child to another location to have his/her blood drawn.  Some clinics are able to test the blood in their office immediately and can provide you with the results on the same day.  Other clinics have to send the blood off for testing and usually have the results within a few days.

What else can I do to protect my child?

Always wash your child’s hands and face, especially before eating, sleeping, or after playtime.

Wash countertops, window ledges, windowsills, and toys often with a wet paper towel or wet cloth. Wet mop floors weekly with an all-purpose detergent.

Washable floor mats should be placed by all entrances into the home to help trap any lead dust, soil, or paint chips from potential exterior lead hazards. These mats should be washed on a weekly basis.

Wash children’s toys weekly and store them in plastic bins or toy chest with lids to reduce any lead-dust build up.

For carpeted floors, an older vacuum cleaner with a bag or a new bagless vacuum is NOT suitable for cleaning a lead dust contaminated house. The dust can pass through the cloth bag and resettle in the house or other areas.  When possible, use a HEPA (high efficiency particle air) filter vacuum cleaner to trap as much lead dust as possible. Vacuum the carpet from top to bottom and then left to right. Spend at least 10 minutes vacuuming a small area (2 feet by 5 feet).

Never sand or scrape areas with lead-based paint if your home was built before 1978.

Do not give your child any home remedies unless they have been approved by your pediatrician. Some imported or folk remedies contain lead.

Do not use handmade, vintage, or imported dishes for eating, storing, or serving food. Also do not use items such as ceramic bean pots, tagines, or other glazed cookware unless you are certain they are lead-free.

Allow cold water to run for one minute before using for drinking, cooking, or preparing baby formula or cereals. Hot water is more likely to leach lead from pipes. If you are concerned that your water might contain lead, purchase filters that are rated to remove lead from water. See About Lead in Water for more information.

If you work with materials that contain lead, take your shoes off and change out of work clothes before you enter your home. Work clothing should be washed separately from other household laundry and an empty washer load should be run in between the work clothes and the family clothes. Parents should also ensure they shower and change clothing before sitting on sofas, chairs, or other furniture in the home to avoid spreading lead dust onto home surfaces. 

Don’t let your child play in areas with bare soil.

Is lead poisoning contagious?

You cannot spread lead poisoning to other people. However, if a sibling or playmate has lead poisoning, your child might be at greater risk because they probably share the same environment and the same exposure sources.