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Lead Exposure and Your Health

Lead is a naturally occurring metal that has been used for thousands of years in a wide variety of products. There is no safe level of lead exposure.

Lead is a naturally occurring metal that has been used for thousands of years in a wide variety of products. There is no safe level of lead exposure.

What is lead?

Galena ore, a source of lead.

Lead is a naturally occurring metal that has been used for thousands of years in a wide variety of products. Although it’s use has been restricted in many products, lead is still found in lead-based paint, ceramic glazes, lead pipes and solder, leaded gasoline, folk remedies, supplements, leaded crystal, cosmetics, and some electronics. Although federal regulations limit the lead content in these items because of health concerns, past use of lead has resulted in widespread environmental contamination and continued exposure to lead. Lead-based paint is no longer used in the United States, but it is still found in paint chips and dust in homes built in New York City prior to 1960 and nationwide prior to 1978. Despite regulations, lead continues to be found in some imported products including jewelry, children’s toys, candies, ceramics, cosmetics, spices, and supplements.

How does lead exposure occur?

The primary route of exposure to lead is through ingestion. Children are at an especially high risk for lead exposure and resultant health impacts. Lead dust and paint chips accumulate on the ground and can be ingested when children normally out their hands in their mouths. Drinking water is another potential source of exposure to lead. Lead gets into water when it dissolves out of older pipes made with lead or lead solder (a metal alloy that joins pipes together). Infants given formula mixed with lead- contaminated tap water may be exposed to significant amounts of lead. Similarly, babies may be exposed to lead prior to birth if pregnant mothers drink contaminated water or are exposed to lead through other sources. Because lead is stored in bone and released during normal bone remodeling that occurs during pregnancy, the developing fetus can also be exposed to lead that their mother was exposed to earlier in life.

How does lead exposure affect health?

There is no amount of lead exposure that is safe. Exposure to even low levels of lead is damaging to the developing brain and is associated with behavioral problems and decreased intelligence in children. Lead exposure can also cause gastrointestinal problems such as poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and constipation as well as iron deficiency, anemia, and delayed growth. Exposure to very high levels of lead results in lead poisoning which is characterized by severe neurological symptoms, difficulty walking, seizures, and coma.

How is lead exposure diagnosed?

Children with low levels of lead exposure may not exhibit symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that all children ages one and two years old are screened for lead by a simple blood test and several states have made this a requirement for all children.  Blood lead levels above 3.5 micrograms per deciliter are considered elevated. Your child’s pediatrician can assess if risk factors are present for lead poisoning by conducting a lead screening questionnaire. This questionnaire can identify if your child needs further testing.

How is lead exposure treated?

If a child’s blood lead level is elevated, effective treatment includes identifying and removing the source of exposure. A diet high in iron, calcium, and vitamin C can help promote removal of lead from the body. Children with lead levels greater than 3.5 micrograms per deciliter should be retested to ensure their blood lead levels are decreasing. When blood lead is greater than 45 micrograms per deciliter, urgent medical intervention including the administration of medicines that remove lead from the body (chelators) may be used.

How is lead regulated?

Lead in Water: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) action level for lead in public drinking water is 15 micrograms per liter (15 parts per billion). Water companies must routinely public water supplies for lead and notify customers of test results. If lead levels in the water are above the EPA action level and cannot be quickly corrected, the water supplier is required to notify homeowners and take steps to reduce lead levels in the drinking water. Bottled drinking water is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and has a maximum lead contaminant level of 5 micrograms per liter.

Lead in Air: Lead is considered a toxic air pollutant and is one of six common pollutants that EPA regulates under the Clean Air Act through monitoring and limits on industrial emissions.

Lead in Consumer Products: The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) requires manufacturers of children’s products to conduct third party testing to confirm that lead levels do not exceed the established maximum of 0.009 percent. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) limits the amount of lead in cosmetics and foods.

Lead in Paint: Lead use in household paint was banned in the US in 1978. The US EPA continues to regulate exposure to leaded paint by requiring landlords and sellers to disclose the presence of leaded paint in older homes and through establishment of lead remediation training and certification programs for contractors. The EPA also sets limits on the amount of lead permitted in dust and soil.

In New York City, the law requires landlords to inspect and fix lead paint hazards at no cost to tenants. The law applies to your apartment if you live in a building built before 1960 (or between 1960 and 1978 if the owner knows the building has lead paint) and you live with a child under the age of six. If you live in an apartment where the Lead Paint Law applies, your landlord must:

  • Send you a notice informing you about lead and the landlord’s responsibilities.
  • Inspect your apartment once a year for lead paint hazards.
  • Use safe work practices to remediate lead hazards.
  • Maintain a record about annual inspections and work performed.

Preventing lead exposure

  • Have your home inspected for lead by a certified professional if you live in an older home and have peeling paint.
  • Test your tap water for lead.
  • Run water for 60 seconds and use cold water to decrease the amount of lead in drinking water and water used for cooking.
  • Use a wet mop or wet dust cloth to reduce exposure to lead dust.
  • Prevent your child from putting painted objects or paint chips in their mouth.
  • Encourage frequent hand washing to remove lead dust and soil.
  • Keep antique toys and other items out of reach of children.
  • Avoid preparing, serving, and storing foods and beverages using imported glazed ceramics and leaded crystal.
  • Hire a licensed contractor for renovation and removal of lead from your home, keep children and pregnant women out of the home until the work is completely finished and your home has successfully passed follow-up testing.
  • Eat a diet rich in iron, vitamin C, and calcium to help to prevent absorption of lead into the body.