During the first two or three years of life, children love to put things other than food into their mouths. They munch on toys, sample the sand at the beach, taste the dog food, and on and on. Your job is to keep poisons and sharp objects out of reach.

Lead is a very strong poison that can seriously damage children’s brains. It can cause learning and behavior problems, stomach troubles, loss of appetite, headaches, constipation, hearing loss and anemia. (When children have anemia, their blood cannot carry enough oxygen for the cells in the body to work and grow well.) Lead is much more dangerous to children than adults.

The more lead taken into the body, the greater the risk of serious problems. The younger the child, the greater the risk. About 1 out of every 20 children in preschool has high blood levels of lead.

Lead poisoning is usually caused by:

  • Eating lead contained in dust, dirt, or old paint.
  • Breathing lead in the air.
  • Drinking water from pipes that contain lead. Contact your local health department to find out if this is a problem in your community.
  • Coming into contact with lead in other ways. Examples: toys that contain lead, some mini-blinds, some imported dishes, materials used for hobbies and crafts (such as jewelry making).

Lead poisoning cannot be caused by chewing on a pencil or by being stuck with a pencil point. Pencil “lead” isn’t lead at all; it’s graphite. The paint on the outside of pencils doesn’t contain lead.

Lead in toys and toy jewelry

Old toys and toys made in other countries may contain lead. It can be in the paint or in the plastics used to make the toys. A child may be exposed to lead when he puts these toys—or fingers that have touched the toys—into his mouth.

Lead in old paint

Before 1978, lead was commonly used in paint. Some of that paint still exists in older homes and buildings—on walls, doors, windows, cabinets. As the paint gets older, it may chip and come off. Babies may pick up small pieces of paint and put them in their mouths. Or the dust from old paint may get on their hands and in their food.

If you live in a home built before 1977
Your home, especially if it was built before 1960, might have dangerous levels of lead.

  • Think about having your home inspected for lead. Your local health department can help you find an inspector. If the inspector finds lead in your home, get advice about how to remove it from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), (800) RID-LEAD, or the National Lead Information Center (800) 424-5323.
  • Look for peeling or chipping paint. Clean it up with water. To reduce lead in dust, regularly clean floors, porches, windows, window sills, and other flat surfaces.
  • Children are often exposed to lead when a home is being renovated. Repairs (such as sanding or scraping paint) can stir up lead dust. Hire workers who have been trained how to work safely in homes that contain lead. You and your children may need to move out while the work is being done. Your local health department can advise you.
  • If you are renting a home and are concerned about lead, contact your local health department for advice. Your landlord is responsible for making repairs safely.

What else you can do to protect your child against lead poisoning

  • Be sure both you and your children wash your hands before eating.
  • If you think a toy might contain lead, throw it out.
  • Check the Web site of the Consumer Product Safety Commission to find out if toys have been recalled for containing lead. Or call (800) 638-2772.
  • Let tap water run for a minute before drinking it or cooking with it.
  • Avoid canned goods from foreign countries.
  • Check the labels of children’s paint sets and art supplies. Be sure they don’t contain lead.

For more information


  • National Lead Information Center, (800) 424-5323
  • The March of Dimes article on drinking water

April 2008

Most common questions

Are plastic baby bottles that use BPA & phthalates safe?

Scientists are debating whether BPA (bisphenol A) and phthalates pose a risk to children's health. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has expressed concerns about chemicals used in plastics. BPA is used to make plastics clear, strong and hard to break. Some baby bottles, dishes and toys contain this chemical. Some research has found that bisphenol A can affect the brain, behavior and prostate gland in infants and children.

If you're concerned, buy BPA-free plastic baby products. You can also use baby bottles made of glass, polypropylene or polyethylene. If you use plastics, avoid plastics numbered 3 or 7 (look for the number in a triangle typically found on the bottom of containers). Use plastics numbered 1, 2 and 4. If plastic baby bottles and infant cups contain BPA, discard them if they have scratches. Don't put boiling or very hot liquids, such as formula, into plastic bottles or containers that contain BPA.

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