Lead Poisoning Overview
Most lead-poisoned children present with no obvious symptoms. If present, symptoms typically are nonspecific complaints, such as stomachache, irritability, headache, fatigue, or loss of appetite. Blood lead level (BLL) testing is the best way to diagnose lead poisoning.
No safe blood lead level in children has been identified.
Blood Lead Level
Possible Health Effects
|less than 10 mcg/dL
||Decreased IQ, neurodevelopmental impairment, no blood lead level known to be without a deleterious effect
||Behavior problems (hyperactivity, irritability), overt physical symptoms rare
||Lethargy/fatigue, anemia, abdominal symptoms (pain, constipation, nausea/vomiting)
||Nephropathy, colic, encephalopathy, seizures
> 100 mcg/dL
Central nervous system (CNS) crisis (cerebral edema, ischemia, seizure, coma, possible death)
Age: under 6 years (peak risk: ages 1–2 years)
- More time spent on floor
- Increased hand-to-mouth behavior
- High gastrointestinal absorption of lead
- Rapid central nervous system development
- Impacts critical periods of brain development
Children Enrolled in or Eligible for Services from a Publicly Funded Program for Low-Income Children
- Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)
- Child Health and Disability Prevention Program (CHDP)
- Head Start
Lives or spends significant amounts of time in pre-1978 housing or buildings
- Paint in poor condition
- Undergoing renovation
- Exposure to lead-contaminated dust or soil
- Lives near source of lead air emissions
- A general aviation airport used by small aircraft
- Exposure to lead-contaminated water source
Contact with Lead-Contaminated Consumer Products
- Art and Hobby Supplies
- Types of dishware (traditional, imported, handmade, older, or damaged)
- Other consumer products
Consumption or Use of Lead-Contaminated Food, Remedies, or Cosmetics
- Foods such as chapulines, candy, spices
- Remedies and supplements
- Traditional cosmetics and religious / ceremonial powders
- Family or household member who works with lead
- Recent immigration/foreign adoptee from region with high environmental lead contamination, or spends time outside of the U.S.
- Family or household member with hobby exposure (e.g., stained glass, welding, ceramics, firearms, fishing)
- Sibling with elevated blood lead level
- Mother with history of lead exposure/lead poisoning
- Pica (ingestion of non-food items such as paint chips, dirt, plaster, clay, pottery)
Toxicological Profile for Lead, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Sources of Lead Exposure
It may have been used both inside and outside of a home or on objects such as furniture. Children may eat paint chips or chew on the surfaces of windows, woodwork, walls, doors, or railings.
Further information on housing and abatement
Lead may be in the soil where children play, especially near busy roadways or factories. The lead from gasoline used for many years has settled onto soil and is difficult to remove. Lead in soil may also be from other sources of air emissions and deteriorated lead-based paint on homes. This soil may also be tracked inside on shoes and clothing.
Lead clings to windowsills, floors, doorways and children's toys, and is dangerous to young children who crawl and often put their hands and other objects in their mouths.
Children can be exposed to the lead in dust brought home on clothing, equipment, or in the car or truck driven from work, as well as lead in dust that comes from hobbies that use lead.
Further information on lead exposure related to work, hobbies or other activities
Some candies, especially those that contain chili, have been found to contain lead. Lead has also been found in wrappers and ceramic candy containers.
Food and Spices
Lead has been found in some food including chapulines (grasshoppers), sweet cured plums, spices, and food in cans with lead solder (these cans have wide seams, and are not used in the U.S.)
NEW Baby Food
- Learn about baby food safety in response to the U.S. House of Representatives report titled, “Baby Foods Are Tainted with Dangerous Levels of Arsenic, Lead, Cadmium, and Mercury.” (PDF) February 4, 2021
- U.S. House of Representatives staff report, "New Disclosures Show Dangerous Levels of Toxic Heavy Metals in Even More Baby Foods" (PDF) September 29, 2021
- FDA, Closer to Zero: Action Plan for Baby Foods
- Healthy Babies / Bright Futures, Lowering the Levels: A Healthy Baby Food Initiative
Neuwirth, et al, Cereal and Juice, Lead and Arsenic, Our Children at Risk: A Call for the FDA to Re-Evaluate the Allowable Limits of Lead and Arsenic That Children May Ingest, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2022)
Some remedies imported from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, India, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico have been found to contain lead.
Lead has been found in products typically used as cosmetics or in religious ceremonies.
The lead from the glaze can leach into food and beverages when these ceramics are used for cooking or storing food.
Lead has been found in children's jewelry and costume jewelry. Children can be exposed to lead by handling, mouthing, or swallowing the jewelry.
Other Consumer Products
Lead has been found in toys, vinyl lunch boxes, and other consumer products.