What is lead poisoning?

Learn about lead poisoning and its impacts.

What is lead (Pb) and where is it found?

Lead is a heavy metal with a bluish-grey color. It has a low melting point, is easily molded and shaped, and can be combined with other metals to form alloys. For these reasons, lead has been used by humans for millennia and is widespread today in products as diverse as batteries, paints, pottery, spices, some traditional medicines, and building materials. While it is useful in many ways, if people, especially children, are exposed to too much lead it can make them sick.

Lead can pollute the soil, water, air, even clothing. If this happens, children can come into contact with it and become ill. 

Why is it bad for children? 

Lead, a highly poisonous element, affects almost every organ in a child’s body. Low levels of lead in the environment can have severe effects on children, even if they don’t appear sick. At low levels lead can have bad effects on the brain such as decreased intelligence, behavioral problems, and problems concentrating. It can also slow the growth and development of the child. At higher levels, lead can have bad effects on the stomach, the kidneys, and the liver. 

Lead is more dangerous to children than for adults, because they have smaller bodies and exposure results in proportionally greater impact, children tend to ingest more dirt because of their outdoor playing habits, and because their neurological development is still in progress. 

If you’re pregnant, will lead exposure affect your baby?

Exposure to lead before and during pregnancy can be extremely harmful. Lead stored in an expectant mother’s bones from her earliest exposures can be released during pregnancy. This increases blood lead levels and poses risks to both the mother and unborn children. It has been shown to cause bleeding, miscarriage, still birth, premature birth and low birth weight, as well as minor malformations, Lead exposure during pregnancy could affect the baby’s growth as well as their future ability to hear, see and learn.

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?

There are typically no symptoms at all and no physical signs that are apparent to a clinician. At moderate to high levels of exposure, there may be a variety of non-specific symptoms, such as headaches, abdominal pain, dullness, loss of memory, poor attention, loss of appetite or constipation. The impacts of lead poisoning on neurological processes and the central nervous system may result in indications of clumsiness, agitation or decreased activity and drowsiness, which can proceed to vomiting, stupor and convulsions in more severe cases.

How do you get exposed to lead?

  • Ingestion of contaminated soil
    • Eating without washing after handling lead contaminated soils
    • Children eating soil
    • Chewing or biting fingernails, licking hands, etc. 
    • Breathing in dust, then coughing and swallowing it. 
  • Inhalation
    • Fine particles from lead-contaminated soils or dust are carried into homes contaminating clothing, surfaces, bedding, cooking utensils and stored foods.
  • Eating food contaminated with lead
    • Lead dust may find its way onto roots and vegetables in the garden.
    • Spices such as turmeric and saffron can be contaminated with lead.
    • Cooking with or eating from aluminum cookware or pottery that is contaminated with lead. 
  • Drinking water
    • Drinking water that has been contaminated with lead from pipes or dust. 
  • Workers clothing
    • People who work in lead-contaminated areas can bring lead home with them on their uniforms, shoes, body, etc. 

How can you reduce your exposure to lead?

Treatment options for lead poisoning are limited; therefore it’s best to prevent exposure to lead. There are a handful of activities that parents and caregivers can do to prevent lead poisoning before it has a chance to occur.