Frequently Asked Questions: Lead
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What is lead?
Why is lead an environmental public health issue?
What do we know about the health effects of lead?
How are children exposed to lead?
Why are we tracking childhood lead poisoning and sources of lead?
How do we track childhood lead poisoning?
What is the role of public health in preventing childhood lead poisoning?
Who is at risk for lead poisoning?
What factors increase the risk?
How do I know if I'm at risk?
What can I do to protect myself and my family?
What tests or treatments are available?
How can EPHT help eliminate childhood lead poisoning in the United States?
What are some links for more information?
Lead is a naturally occurring bluish-gray metal found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. Lead can be found in all parts of our environment. Much of it comes from human activities including mining, manufacturing and burning fossil fuels.
Lead has been used in our society in a variety of ways: in paints, gasoline and some vinyl products, such as mini-blinds.
It is used to produce batteries, ammunition, metal products (solder and pipes) and devices to shield X-rays.
People may be exposed to lead by breathing or swallowing lead or lead dust in their environment. Once it has entered the body, lead accumulates and can become a health hazard.
Because of health concerns, lead in paints and ceramic products, caulking and pipe solder has been dramatically reduced. Lead-based paints were banned for use in housing
Using lead as a gasoline additive was also banned in the United States in 1996. However, lead can still be found in our environment and people, especially children, are still being exposed.
The effects of lead are the same whether it enters the body through breathing or swallowing. Lead can affect almost every organ and system in the body. The main target for lead toxicity is the nervous system, both in adults and children.
Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems. At very high levels it can cause seizures, comas and even death. Because lead poisoning often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently considers a blood lead level (BLL) of 10
micrograms of lead per deciliter (µg/dL) or greater to be elevated and to require individualized case management. While this is the current action level, no amount of lead is safe.
Children are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults. The first six -- particularly the first three -- years of life are when the human brain grows the fastest. The critical connections in the brain and other parts of the nervous system that control thought, learning, hearing, movement, behavior and emotions form during these early years.
In the United States, the major source of lead exposure among children is lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust found in older buildings. Lead-based paints were banned for use in housing
in 1978. Homes and other buildings built before 1978, and especially those built before 1950, may contain lead-based paint.
Deteriorating paint that is chipping, flaking and/or peeling and paint disturbed during home remodeling contribute to lead dust, contaminate bare soil around a home, and make paint chips and dust containing lead accessible.
The normal behavior of young children -- crawling, exploring, teething and putting objects in their mouths – can put them into contact with any lead present in their environment.
Children can be exposed to lead by chewing on lead-based pint chips or objects painted with lead-based paint or breathing or swallowing house dust or soil that contains lead.
Lead from sources other than housing may also present a hazard.
Other sources of lead poisoning may include:
- Hobbies (making stained-glass windows, hunting, fishing, target shooting);
- Work (recycling or making automobile batteries, painting, radiator repair);
- Drinking water (lead pipes, solder, brass fixtures and valves that can all leach lead).
Childhood lead poisoning is a preventable health problem. Before the use of lead was restricted, approximately 88 percent of preschool children in the United States had levels of lead in their blood high enough to potentially cause serious health effects. Although there is a wide variation in individual biological susceptibility to lead exposure’s effects, the potential health consequences are so severe that everyone needs to be protected.
Since the use of lead has been restricted, the amount of lead in the environment has declined. Lead poisonings have decreased and become less severe. However, lead poisoning still occurs. An estimated 310,000 U.S. children aged 1 to 5 years have blood lead levels greater than 10
micrograms of lead per deciliter (µg/dL),
the level at which CDC recommends health actions be initiated.
The main source of childhood lead poisoning is lead-based paint in older homes. Twenty-four million housing units in the United States have peeling or chipping lead-based paint and high levels of lead-contaminated house dust. More than 4 million of these dwellings are homes for one or more young children.
The keys to preventing lead poisoning in children are to prevent them from coming into contact with lead and treating those who have been poisoned by lead. The following actions will help produce these results:
Remove lead in a child’s environment.
Inform health professionals about lead poisoning and how to prevent and treat it.
By tracking children with lead poisoning and sources of lead, we can:
Identify children at risk in order to target testing and resources.
Make case management services available to each child with lead poisoning.
Monitor progress towards eliminating childhood lead poisoning.
- Identify and monitor trends in lead sources that are exposing children to lead.
Develop and evaluate interventions and programs.
When a child is tested for lead poisoning, state and local childhood lead poisoning prevention programs collect information about the child including test results and any potential sources of lead in the child’s environment. These programs share some of this information with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to compile in a national database.
Maintain a national system to identify children with elevated blood lead levels.
Ensure that screening, lead-hazard reduction and other prevention interventions occur.
Identify and care for lead-poisoned children and adults.
Create best practices for proper care of children with elevated blood lead levels.
Prevent environmental exposures to lead through monitoring lead-based paint activities.
Provide technical and financial assistance to lead poisoning prevention programs.
Increase awareness about preventing lead poisoning in homes that contain lead paint.
Support lead abatement legislation.
Children under 6 years old are at increased risk for lead poisoning because they are growing rapidly and because they tend to put their hands and other objects into their mouths. Children from all social and economic levels can be affected by lead poisoning, although children living in poverty in older housing are at the greatest risk. Children of some racial and ethnic groups and those living in older housing are disproportionately affected by lead. For example, 3 percent of black children compared to 1.3 percent of white children have elevated blood lead levels. Pregnant women are also a vulnerable group because their lead exposure directly affects the developing fetus.
You and/or your family may be at risk for lead poisoning if you live in housing or regularly visit a house or facility (i.e., child care) built before 1978. In addition to older housing, other sources may also present risks. These sources include:
- Hobbies (making stained-glass windows, hunting, fishing or target shooting);
- Work (recycling or making automobile batteries, painting, radiator repair);
- Drinking water (lead pipes, solder, brass fixtures valves can all leach lead).
Ask a doctor to test your child if you are concerned about exposure to lead.
Talk to your state or local health department about testing paint and dust from your home for lead if you live in a house or apartment built before 1978, especially if young children live with you or visit you. Free testing may be available, and inexpensive test kits are sold commercially at hardware and specialty stores.
Damp-mop floors, damp-wipe surfaces, and frequently wash a child’s hands, pacifiers and toys to reduce exposure to lead.
Leave shoes at the door. Studies have revealed that substantial lead exposures, particularly for children who spend time crawling and playing on the floor, are linked to materials tracked into the house on the bottoms of shoes.
Use only cold water from the tap for drinking, cooking and making baby formula. Hot water is more likely to contain higher levels of lead because it dissolves lead more quickly that cold water. Most of the lead in household water usually comes from the plumbing in your house, not from the local water supply.
Take basic steps to decrease your exposure to lead (e.g., by showering and changing clothes after finishing remodeling tasks in buildings built before 1978 or if your work or hobbies involve lead-based products).
Avoid do-it-yourself remodeling of an older home if you are not specifically trained in lead safety issues. Consult a professional with lead abatement experience before beginning major renovation on an older home likely to contain lead paint.
A blood test is available to measure the amount of lead in your blood and to estimate the amount of your recent exposure to lead. Blood tests are commonly used to screen children for lead poisoning and can be easily conducted in your medical provider’s office.
The most important treatment for lead poisoning is to prevent or reduce the lead exposure. Properly removing the lead from a person’s environment helps to ensure a decline in blood-lead levels.
The longer a person is exposed to lead, the greater the likelihood that damage to health will result. At very high blood lead levels
, physicians may prescribe medications to lower blood-lead levels in a treatment known as chelation therapy.
Environmental public health data on the number of children tested and the number of children with elevated blood lead levels will be made available through the Environmental Public Health Tracking Network Web site.
Because of new construction and demolition of units that were built when lead was still used in paint, other sources of lead will also have to be monitored. The EPHT Tracking Network will continue to add more information about lead in water, soil and air.
Parents, teachers, doctors and public health professionals will be able to use data analysis and display tools to further decrease lead sources in the environment and lower the number of children who become poisoned by lead
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS):
Alliance for Healthy Homes:
Lead in Paint, Dust, and Soil, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):
National Environmental Public Health Tracking (NEPHT) Program, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), DHHS:
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS),
National Institutes of Health, DHHS: www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/lead/index.cfm;
National Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, CDC, DHHS:
Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD):
Oregon Environmental Public Health Tracking (EPHT), Department of Human Services (DHS):
Oregon Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (LPPP), DHS: