Lead poisoning

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Key Points

Lead poisoning (high levels of lead in your body) can cause serious problems during pregnancy, like preterm birth and miscarriage.

If you have low levels of lead in your body, it’s safe to breastfeed. Ask your provider to check your lead levels before you start breastfeeding.

If you think you or someone in your family may have lead poisoning, tell your health care provider.

What is lead and lead poisoning?

Lead is a metal that comes from the ground, but it can be in the air, water and food. You can’t see, smell or taste it. High levels of lead in your body (called lead poisoning) can cause serious health problems for you and your family.

Most lead comes from paint in older homes. When old paint cracks or peels, it makes dust that has lead in it. The dust may be too small to see. You can breathe in the dust and not know it.

Are you at risk for lead poisoning?

You and your family may be more likely than others to have high levels of lead in your bodies if:

  • Your drinking water has high amounts of lead in it.
  • You live in or work in an older home that has lead paint in it.
  • You live in or recently lived in a place where there’s a lot of lead, like near a mine or a smelter or in a country where they still use leaded gasoline.
  • You work with or live with someone who works with lead, like in auto repair, construction or in a plant that makes paint, batteries, plastics or ships.
  • You use or work with lead-glazed ceramic pottery.
  • You eat nonfood items, like clay or dirt. This is called pica. Tell your provider if you or anyone in your family has pica.
  • You use herbal products or supplements that may have lead in them.

Common sources of lead in and around homes in the United States include:

  • Arts and crafts supplies, like oil paint, ceramic glazes and materials used to make stained glass
  • Canned food, candy, toys and makeup made outside the United States
  • Jewelry
  • Lead crystal glassware and ceramic dishes. Don’t use these for cooking or eating. Ceramics you buy in a store may be safer than those made by craftspeople. Always check the product label to make sure your dishes are safe for cooking and eating.
  • Lead-based paint and dust in homes built before 1978 and paint used on old toys
  • Soil
  • Water that comes from wells or through old pipes

If you or your partner work with lead:

  • Shower and change clothes (including shoes) before you go home from work.
  • Wash your work clothes at work or wash them at home separately from the rest of the laundry.
  • Wash your hands before eating.

Pencil lead is not the same as the metal lead. It’s not lead it all—it’s really a substance called graphite. Don’t worry about being exposed to lead through chewing on a pencil or getting stuck by pencil point.

Can lead poisoning affect pregnancy?

Yes. You can pass lead to your baby through the placenta. The placenta grows in your uterus (womb) and supplies your baby with food and oxygen through the umbilical cord.

Exposure to high levels of lead before and during pregnancy can cause:

  • Fertility problems, like reduced sperm count or abnormal sperm. Sperm in a man’s semen fertilizes a woman's egg to get her pregnant. Sperm count is the number of sperm in a man’s semen when he ejaculates.
  • High blood pressure (also called hypertension). This is when the force of blood against the walls of your blood vessels is too high. High blood pressure can cause problems during pregnancy.
  • Problems with the development of your baby’s brain and nervous system. The nervous system includes your brain, spinal cord and nerves. Your nervous system helps you move, think and feel. Babies exposed to lead before birth are likely to have learning problems and slow growth.
  • Preterm birth. This is birth that happens too early, before 37 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Low birthweight. This is when your baby weighs less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces at birth.
  • Miscarriage. This is when a baby dies in the womb before 20 weeks of pregnancy.

During pregnancy, eating foods with certain vitamins and nutrients can help absorb lead from your body and protect your growing baby. If you’re pregnant and think you may be exposed to lead, eat foods that contain:

  • Calcium, including milk, yogurt, cheese and green leafy vegetables
  • Iron, including lean red meat, beans, cereal and spinach
  • Vitamin C, including oranges, green and red peppers, broccoli, tomatoes and juices

If you’re pregnant, don’t take herbal products or supplements because some may have lead in them. An herbal product, like pills or tea, is made from plants used in cooking. A supplement is a product you take to make up for certain nutrients that you don’t get enough of in the foods you eat. If you do take an herbal product or supplement during pregnancy, tell your health care provider.

If you’re pregnant and work with lead and are pregnant, talk to your boss about changing job responsibilities to help keep you and your baby safe during pregnancy. 

How does lead poisoning affect children?

Children younger than 6 years can be severely affected by lead. It can affect development of the brain and body. Very high levels can cause death. Signs and symptoms of lead poisoning in children include:

  • Being irritable or fatigued (really tired)
  • Belly pain and constipation. Constipation is when you don’t have bowel movements, they don’t happen often or your stools (poop) are hard to pass.
  • Developmental delays and learning problems. Developmental delays are when your child doesn't reach developmental milestones when expected. A developmental milestone is a skill or activity that most children can do at a certain age. Milestones include sitting, walking, talking, having social skills and having thinking skills.
  • Hearing loss
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Vomiting

If you think your child may have lead poisoning, tell his health care provider. His provider can check his lead levels with a blood test.

How does lead poisoning affect adults?

Lead targets a person’s nervous system, so it can cause problems like delirium (not being able to think clearly), seizures, coma and death. But most people with lead poisoning don’t know they have it. Signs and symptoms of lead poisoning in adults include:

  • Belly pain and constipation
  • Fatigue (feeling really tired)
  • Headache
  • High blood pressure or anemia. Anemia is when you don't have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to the rest of your body.
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss
  • Mood disorders, like depression. Depression is a medical condition in which strong feelings of sadness last for a long time and interfere with your daily life. It needs treatment to get better.
  • Muscle or joint pain or pain, numbness or tingling in the hands and feet
  • Trouble concentrating or remembering things

If you think you or someone in your family has lead poisoning, tell your health care provider. Your provider can check your lead levels with a blood test.  

If you’ve been exposed to lead, is it safe to breastfeed?

If you think you’ve been exposed to lead and are breastfeeding or planning to breastfeed, tell your provider. She can test your lead levels to see if breastfeeding is safe for your baby. If you have more than 40 micrograms/dL of lead in your system, it’s not safe to breastfeed. Pump your breast milk and throw it out until your lead levels are safe.

How can you protect yourself and your family from lead in paint in your home?

Lead-based paint and dust with lead in it are the most dangerous sources of lead for babies and children in the United States. Lead paint in homes built before 1978 may chip or peel and make dust. Breathing or swallowing chips or dust can be harmful. Children younger than 6 are at the greatest risk because they often put their hands, toys and other things in their mouths. These may be coated with lead chips or dust.

If your house was built after 1978, you probably don’t need to worry about lead in your home. If your house was built before 1978, here’s what you can do to help prevent your family from being exposed to lead in paint:  

  • Look for peeling or chipping paint. Clean it up with water.
  • If you’re remodeling or having repairs done, stay out of your home, especially rooms where paint is being sanded or scraped.
  • Keep floors, porches, windows, window sills and other flat surfaces clean from dust.
  • Wash your hands before eating. Teach your children to do this, too.
  • Have your home inspected for lead. Your local health department can help you find an inspector. If the inspector finds lead in your home, hire trained workers to remove it. Stay out of your home until the lead is removed. If you rent, your landlord is responsible for making repairs safely. If you need help talking to your landlord about lead, contact your local health department. For more information about removing lead from your home, visit the Environmental Protection Agency or contact the National Lead Information Center at (800) 424-LEAD (5323). 

How can you protect yourself and your family from lead in drinking water?

Drinking water may contain lead if you have lead pipes in your home or if you use well water. Boiling water doesn’t get rid of lead.

If you think you have lead in your drinking water: 

  • Use bottled or filtered water for cooking and drinking. If you use tap water, use only cold water for drinking and cooking. Water from cold-water pipes has less lead than water from hot-water pipes. Run cold tap water for 1 to 2 minutes before using it. Fill containers with cold tap water to use later.
  • Get your pipes tested. Contact your local health or water department to find out how to test your pipes for lead.
  • If you use well water, contact the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791 for information on testing your water for lead.

More information

Environmental Protection Agency

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Last reviewed: May, 2016