Prolonged exposure to lead-based paints and other products carries the risk of many adverse health effects. Learning about the dangers of lead exposure and how to avoid them can help everyone from homeowners to landlords avoid hazardous situations.

What is Lead Poisoning?

Lead is a metal that is poisonous (toxic) when inhaled or eaten. Lead gets into the bloodstream. It is stored in the organs, tissues, bones, and teeth.  

With increasing or prolonged exposure, lead can cause:  

  • Permanent damage to the central nervous system, especially the brain  
  • Delayed development in children  
  • Behavioral changes in children 
  • Decreased production of red blood cells (anemia)  
  • Hearing problems 
  • Damage to the reproductive systems of men and women 
  • Kidney disease 
  • Convulsions (seizures)  
  • Coma  

The leading source of exposure to lead is lead-based paint. This was outlawed for residential use in 1978. But it remains in some older homes. The main hazard is paint dust, as lead enters the air when old paint is scraped, sanded, or begins to flake.  

People can get lead into their bodies in other ways. These include: 

  • Drinking water from pipes that are made of lead or use lead solder 
  • Using ceramic dishes made with lead 
  • Using products made with lead-containing paint (often imported from other countries) 
  • Playing in lead-contaminated soil 
  • Using lead in hobbies or crafts such as making stained glass 
  • Using certain home remedies that contain lead 
  • Eating lead-contaminated spices purchased in foreign countries (unusual)  

Children face the most serious risk. Their growing bodies absorb more lead. Young children, especially toddlers, tend to put objects in their mouths that may be covered with lead dust. If lead paint is flaking, small children sometimes eat the sweet-tasting paint chips. Or they chew on painted surfaces, such as window sills. 

Adults who have high lead levels in their blood usually were exposed in the workplace. Industries with a high potential for exposure include: 

  • Construction that involves welding, cutting, blasting, or other disturbances of surfaces painted with lead 
  • Smelter operations 
  • Radiator repair shops 
  • Firing ranges   

Since lead was banned in gasoline and residential paint in the 1970s, average blood levels of lead have dropped dramatically in the United States.  

In children, lead levels of 5 micrograms or more per deciliter (mcg/dL) of blood are known to be hazardous. Recent studies suggest that even lower levels may be harmful. Pediatricians closely monitor children whose lead level is approaching 5 (mcg/dL). They are encouraged to look carefully for possible sources of lead exposure.

Symptoms of Lead Poisoning

Children with blood lead levels of 5–25 mcg/dL usually do not show any obvious symptoms of too much lead in the body. The damage may not be obvious. It only becomes noticeable at school age, when the child shows signs of possible learning disabilities, behavioral problems, or mental retardation. 

At higher exposures, children may experience:  

  • Decreased production of red blood cells (anemia)  
  • Tiredness and fatigue  
  • Headaches  
  • Severe abdominal pain and cramps  
  • Hearing problems  
  • Slowed growth  
  • Persistent vomiting  
  • Convulsions  
  • Coma 

Adults with blood lead levels of 40–50 mcg/dL may display some of the same symptoms, or any of the following:  

  • Inability to sleep  
  • Memory and concentration problems  
  • Infertility  
  • Kidney damage  
  • High blood pressure 

In pregnant women:  

  • Stillbirths 
  • Miscarriages 
  • Premature births  
  • Problems in fetal neurological development  
  • Diagnosis

Testing & Screening for Lead Exposure

Blood tests can also be used for lead screening. Because there are often no early symptoms, a blood test is the best way to identify children at risk of lead poisoning at an early stage.  

Lead screening typically starts at age 6 months to 12 months. Lead screening guidelines vary from state to state, but the minimum screening is at 1 and 2 years. The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children under age 6 be tested for lead if they:

  • Live in or regularly visit a house or daycare center built before 1950 
  • Live in or regularly visit a house built before 1978 that has been remodeled in the last six months  
  • Have a brother, sister, housemate, or playmate who is being treated for lead poisoning  
  • Live with a parent whose job or hobby involves exposure to lead  
  • Live near an active smelter, battery recycling plant, or other industry likely to release lead into the air  
  • Have been seen eating paint chips or dirt  
  • Have low levels of iron in the blood (anemia) 
  • Have never been tested for lead

Illinois Environmental Contractors Association Resources

For more information on finding a local contractor to assist with the lead abatement process, check the resources below:

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