What is lead?
Lead is a naturally occurring heavy metal. Common sources of lead in Australia are:
- water from lead lined pipes
- lead dust
- lead contaminated soil
- lead paint
Lead is highly toxic and causes serious health problems. This is especially the case for young children. Young children are vulnerable because they:
- put their hands and other objects in their mouths
- absorb more lead than adults
- have brains that are still developing and are more sensitive to lead
There is no safe level of lead.
What is lead poisoning?
Lead poisoning is rare but can be life threatening. It’s when a person has high levels of lead in their blood.
Lead poisoning can happen after a single high level of exposure (acute exposure) or because of ongoing exposure (chronic exposure).
Lead can enter your child’s body by:
- inhalation — breathing it in
- ingestion — eating it
Eating a small amount of lead-based paint can increase lead in your child’s blood for several weeks. Some of it will remain in their body for life. Lead affects almost every organ and system in the body.
What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?
Often there are no obvious symptoms of lead poisoning in children. Lead can gradually build up in your child’s body. This can affect their:
- physical growth
- blood cell development
- kidney function
Acute lead poisoning from a single, high-level exposure can cause:
- altered consciousness and seizures
- abdominal (tummy) pain
- nausea and vomiting
Chronic or ongoing exposure to lead can cause:
- poor concentration
- learning difficulties
- poor coordination
- abdominal (tummy) pain
- weight loss
- kidney problems
If you’re exposed to lead while pregnant, the lead can pass through your placenta and affect your unborn baby. Likewise, lead can be passed through your breast milk to your infant.
What causes lead poisoning?
Most houses built before 1970 contain lead-based paint. Paint chips and dust contaminated with lead-based paint are a common source of lead eaten by young children. Young children often put things in their mouths and chew on them.
Lead is also found in some plumbing and pipes.
Lead may be used in some art supplies, and in pewter (a type of metal made mostly of tin used to make decorative vases and tableware) that is not marked ‘lead-free’. Food cooked or stored in glazed pottery or ceramic containers may also become contaminated with lead.
Lead can also be in the soil from previous or current industrial activities and mining. There are 3 main cities in Australia where lead is mined:
- Broken Hill, New South Wales
- Mount Isa, Queensland
- Port Pirie, South Australia
Lead may be found in the paint on some toys. Australian standards limit the amount of lead used in materials to make children's toys, but some imported toys may present a risk.
How is lead poisoning diagnosed?
Lead poisoning is diagnosed by a blood test. Ask your doctor to test your child if you are concerned that your child has been exposed to lead.
If your child has eaten an object containing lead, your doctor may order an x-ray.
How is lead poisoning treated?
Treatment will depend on the type of lead your child has been exposed to. It will also depend on which medicines can be obtained quickly.
How can lead poisoning be prevented?
There are things you can do to help prevent lead poisoning in your child.
You can reduce lead exposure by:
- frequently washing your child’s hands
- frequently washing your child’s toys
- regularly washing your family pets
- regularly wet mopping your floors and stairs
- regularly washing your windowsills to reduce dust
Be aware that lead can be found in the paint on some toys that aren’t made in Australia. Also, very old toys and cots may have unsafe levels of lead in them.
Try to reduce your child’s exposure to environmental sources of lead. Be aware of:
- renovating old houses — those built before 1970
- hobbies such as target shooting, pottery glazing, stained glass, making fishing sinkers
- occupations — mining and smelting
Living in and renovating older houses
If you live in an older house and you think there is lead-based paint on the outside of your house, ask people to take their shoes off before coming in. You can also plant bushes next to the walls of your house so that your children can’t play there.
You can have your water tested for lead — discuss any concerns with a registered plumber. Plus, always use the cold water tap for drinking and cooking, as hot water is likely to contain high levels of lead.
Take care when renovating your house if it was built before 1970.
- Have the paint in your home tested for lead. If needed, contact a professional for lead paint removal.
- Try to do the work when your children aren’t around.
- Make sure you dispose of all materials that contain lead properly.
Exposure to lead at work
If you are exposed to lead dust at work, be careful with your work clothes. Lead dust can be carried into your home on your clothes. Shower and change clothes before going home to play with your child.
Your child’s diet and lead
Try to ensure that your child has a healthy and varied diet.
Children who are deficient in iron, calcium, and vitamin C are more likely to be harmed by lead exposure.
Diet can have a major impact on how much lead is absorbed into their body.
- A diet with enough iron in it helps to reduce lead absorption.
- Calcium competes with lead and can stop its absorption.
- Vitamin C may increase excretion of lead by the kidneys (wee).
Complications of lead poisoning
Lead exposure in childhood can cause learning disabilities, behaviour and attention problems, and trouble hearing and learning to speak.
It can also cause bone problems and a delay in tooth development. This is because lead is stored mainly in the bones.
In very bad cases lead poisoning can be life-threatening.
Resources and support
Visit the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment website to learn more about lead poisoning.
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: March 2023