Lead exposure poses health risks to you and your family

October 25, 2022
Kelly Berg, Environmental Health Program Specialist

There is no known safe level of lead in the human body. Children are especially at risk because their bodies absorb more lead than adults, and their nervous systems, including their brains, are not fully developed.

Lead is a naturally occurring metal, and exposure often goes unnoticed because people may have no symptoms and appear healthy. Lead can enter the bloodstream through breathing or swallowing. Children’s brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead, and exposure can result in difficulty learning, behavioral problems, hearing issues, slowed growth, and headaches. Even low levels of lead in blood can cause developmental delays.

Where can a child be exposed to lead?

Lead can be found in the home, air, soil, and water -- all places where children live, learn, and play. The most common exposures include:

  • Lead-based paint: Homes built before 1978 may have lead paint. Deteriorated surfaces where lead-based paint may be peeling, chipping, or cracking can create dust that contains lead.
  • Lead contamination from clothing: Contamination of the home can occur from clothing worn by adults who work in mines, auto shops, and construction sites. Clothing worn during recreational activities in locations containing lead can also bring lead into a home.
  • Lead in drinking water: If your home was built before 1986, it may have lead pipes, fixtures, and solder. Lead can enter drinking water when lead service pipes corrode. 
  • Lead in soil: Soil in yards or playgrounds can contain lead from different sources, including the ground where exterior lead-based paint may fall after it flake or peels. The use of leaded gasoline in cars or industrial sources, such as former lead smelters or mines, can also be sources of soil contamination.
  • Lead used in jobs and hobbies: Jobs and hobbies that may expose you to lead include welding, auto or boat repair, making ceramics or stained glass, target shooting at firing ranges, furniture refinishing, and home remodeling . People may bring lead dust into their cars or homes by carrying it on their clothes or body.   
  • Lead in products: Lead may be found in certain foods, cosmetics, and traditional medicines imported or purchased in other countries. You cannot tell if a product contains lead by looking at it or tasting it. 
  • Lead at old mining sites: Historical mine sites can have high levels of lead and other metals in waste rock, tailing piles, soil, water, and buildings. 
What are steps I can take to protect my child from lead?

Work with your doctor: Lead exposure often has no obvious symptoms and can go unrecognized. Testing is the only way to know if your child has lead in their body. If you have never had your child tested, or think your child has been exposed to lead, contact your doctor to arrange a simple blood test.

Be sure to follow up: If your child has an elevated blood lead level, work with your doctor for information about how to lower it. Follow-up testing should be scheduled until the level of lead in the blood is no longer a concern.

Find sources of lead exposure:

Ways to reduce lead exposure:

  • Repair deteriorating surfaces containing lead-based paint that are peeling, chipping, and cracking. This repair should be done immediately by an EPA-certified contactor. Home repairs such as sanding or scraping paint can create lead dust and should be carried out by an EPA-certified contractor. 
  • Wash your hands often. Everyone should wash their hands before eating and sleeping, especially after playing outside. Lead dust is so small it cannot be seen. Children can get lead poisoning from swallowing dust on their hands and toys.
  • Keep lead-associated hobbies separate from living space. If you have hobbies that involve lead, such as bullet reloading, fishing, or antiquing, prevent the build-up of lead dust by regularly cleaning your work area and keeping your hobby separate from your living space.
  • Remove shoes and dirty clothing before entering your home, especially if you have a job that includes welding, auto or boat repair, making ceramics, stained glass, target shooting at firing ranges, furniture refinishing, and home remodeling.
  • Clean play areas, toys, and toy containers often. If toys come from outside, clean them before bringing them inside.
  • Lead may be found in the paint, metal, and plastic parts of toys and toy jewelry, particularly those made in other countries, as well as antique toys and collectibles. Check the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) website or call 800-638-2272 to be sure your child’s toys are safe.
  • Lead can be found in foods, cosmetics, and medicines from other counties. Pregnant women and children should avoid use of any product that may contain lead. More information can be found here.  

Feed your child healthy foods:

  • Foods that contain calcium, iron, and vitamin C may help keep lead from building up in the body.
    • Calcium is in milk, yogurt, cheese, and green leafy vegetables like spinach.
    • Iron is in red meats, beans, peanut butter, and cereals.
    • Vitamin C is in oranges, green and red peppers, and juice.

For additional information

Kelly Berg is an Environmental Health Program Specialist in the Division of Public Health. Kelly is responsible for developing Idaho’s first Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, aimed to raise awareness of childhood lead exposures and increase blood lead testing rates for children 6 years and younger throughout Idaho.

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The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is dedicated to strengthening the health, safety, and independence of Idahoans. Learn more at healthandwelfare.idaho.gov