Childhood Lead Exposure
Lead is a toxic metal that was commonly used in paint, gasoline, and plumbing pipes and fixtures. Because of health concerns, the federal government banned lead from paint in 1978. It was also banned from gasoline in 1995.
Who is most at risk of harm from lead?
Children are at higher risk of harm because their developing brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the harm lead can cause. Lead is also a concern for pregnant women because it can pass from the mother to her fetus.
There are approximately half a million children ages 1-5 with elevated blood lead levels living in the U.S. The CDC considers a blood lead level (BLL) of 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) or higher to be elevated and the level at which actions should be taken to reduce lead in the child’s environment. However, no amount of lead in the body is considered safe.
The CDC has determined that children whose families are low income, are minority race or ethnicity, or are living in older homes, are more likely to have elevated blood lead levels. About 5.6% of black children have elevated blood lead levels compared to 2.4% of white children.
How can children come into contact with lead?
Children can breathe or swallow lead particles. The most common sources of exposure are lead paint chips, lead-contaminated dust, and water. Lead paint is a problem when it is peeling or chipping, gets into the air, or when it is on surfaces that children can chew on. Lead is also found in some caulking and plumbing fixtures.
Children sometimes eat lead paint chips because the chips have a sweet taste. Children are also more likely to put their hands and other objects into their mouths that might have lead-contaminated dust or soil on them.
Adults are also at risk of harm from lead. They may work in a job or have a hobby where lead is used, or being removed. Children of parents who are around lead at work are also at risk of harm. Parents may have lead particles on their clothing or other work items and bring them into the home.
How do you know if you have lead in your body?
A blood test can measure the amount of lead in your blood and estimate how much lead you have recently come into contact with. The most reliable test is done by drawing blood from your arm, which is called a venous test. Some health providers and clinics do a test with blood drawn from your finger, but if it is elevated it should be followed up with a venous test.
What health problems can lead cause?
- Learning problems
- Behavior problems including hyperactivity
- Lower IQ
- Slowed growth and development
- Hearing and speech problems
- Decreased kidney function
- Essential tremor of the hands
- Small increases in blood pressure, especially in middle-aged or older people
- Changes in sperm and possible difficulty becoming pregnant.
- Reduced fetal growth in pregnant women
The longer a person is exposed to lead, the greater the likelihood that health problems could occur.
Where is lead found?
Lead can be found in:
- Paint in homes built before 1978
- Soil in yards and playgrounds contaminated from past use of lead in paint, gasoline, or industry
- Drinking water contaminated by plumping pipes and fixtures that contain lead
- Older or imported toys, furniture, or toy jewelry
- Items made with brass, which contains lead, such as faucets and keys
- Some candy and candy wrappers imported from Mexico
- Hobbies such as making fishing weights, bullets, or stained glass using lead solder
- Wild game meat that was taken by lead shot or lead bullets
- Indoor or outdoor shooting ranges
- Some imported spices, cultural powders, and folk remedies
- Lead crystal or ceramic-glazed pottery
- Water from outside faucets
- Jobs where workers are at a higher risk of exposure to lead include:
- Auto repairers
- Battery manufacturers
- Construction workers
- Firing range instructors and gunsmiths
- Lead miners and manufacturers
- Manufacturing bullets, ceramics, and electrical components
- Plumbers and pipe fitters
- Recyclers of metal, electronics, and batteries
Lead Poisoning is Preventable!
Ask your children’s health care provider about testing your children for lead if you live in an older house or you are concerned about lead exposure.
If your home was built before 1978:
- Have your home tested for lead. If lead is found, there is a program that may help with the cost to remove it. For more information, call the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Lead Safe Home Program, 866-691-5323.
- Hire a contractor certified in lead removal for home remodeling projects. To find out if a contractor is certified, call the Lead Safe Home Program, 866-691-5323 or view the Certified Lead Inspector's, list.
- Clean floors, window sills, and other surfaces often with a wet mop or cloth.
Other steps to take:
- Take your shoes off before going into your house to avoid spreading lead from soil or dust inside your house.
- Wash your child's hands, pacifiers, and toys often to remove lead from soil or dust.
- Don’t let babies and children play with keys or metal trinkets.
- Use a water filter meeting NSF/ANSI 53 standards if your home has lead pipes or fixtures containing lead.8
- Have your drinking water tested if your home has lead pipes, brass fixtures, or non-plastic plumbing that was installed before 2014.3
- Use only cold tap water for drinking, cooking, and for making baby formula.
- Shower and change your clothes before going home if your work uses lead-based products.
- Move your hobby work space to a place away from your home. Shower or wash your hands and change your clothes before getting into the car and returning home.
Imported items that sometimes have high amounts of lead:
- Cultural powders such as sindoor imported from India, South Asia, Latin America, or China.
- Remedies such as Azarcon, Greta, Ghasard, Ba-baw-san, and Daw Tway that are used to treat arthritis, infertility, upset stomach, menstrual cramps, colic, or some other illness
- Cosmetics such as kohl, kaja, al-kahl, or sumra
- Candies imported from Mexico
Some foods can help prevent lead from getting absorbed into the body. It’s important to provide healthy meals and snacks that are high in calcium, iron, and vitamin C to anyone that has been exposed to lead, especially children. Between meals, offer small snacks from the foods listed below. An empty stomach absorbs more lead.
Foods that are high in calcium include:
- Milk and milk products such as cheese and yogurt
- Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, collard greens, and kale
- Canned salmon and sardines
- Calcium-enriched orange juice
- Foods that are high in iron include:
- Lean red meats, light tuna, salmon, and chicken
- Peanut butter
- Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, collard greens, and kale
- Iron-fortified cereal, bread, and pasta
- Dried fruit such as raisins and prunes
- Foods that are high in vitamin C include:
- Citrus fruit such as oranges, grapefruit, and their juices
- Tomatoes and tomato juice
- Other fruits such as kiwi, strawberries, and melons
What childhood lead exposure data are available on the MiTracking data portal?
The data portal includes these childhood lead exposure indicators:
- Annual blood lead levels
- Blood lead levels by birth cohort
- Age of housing
The data can tell us:
- The number and percent of children tested for blood lead and among those tested, the number and percent with BLLs equal to or above the current reference level of 5 µg/dL
However, the data cannot tell us:
- The total number of children affected.
- The cost, effect, result, or consequence of lead exposure
- Source of lead exposure
For more information on lead exposure, visit:
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services
State of Michigan
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)