What is lead poisoning?
Lead is a metal used in certain types of manufacturing. It can be found in the environment through contamination of water, dust, soil and some paints.
It is highly toxic and causes serious health problems, especially for children. Lead exposure in childhood can cause learning disabilities, behaviour and attention problems, and trouble hearing and learning to speak.
Eating a small amount of lead-based paint can increase lead in the blood for several weeks. Some of it will remain in the body for life. Lead can gradually build up in the body and may affect physical growth, blood cell development and kidney functioning.
What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?
Lead poisoning is when a person has high levels of lead in their blood. Poisoning can happen after a single high level of exposure (acute exposure) or as a result of ongoing exposure (chronic exposure).
Acute (single, high-level) exposure can cause:
- muscle pains
- abdominal discomfort
Chronic or ongoing exposure can cause:
- shortened attention span and irritability, and learning difficulties
- low energy and low appetite
- poor coordination
- behaviour problems
- poor growth
- high blood pressure
- problems with the heart rate and with
- organs such as kidneys
Often there are no obvious symptoms of lead poisoning in children. If a child keeps taking in lead, it can eventually cause severe lead poisoning with serious symptoms. Very high levels of lead will most likely cause the most severe problems, but any amount of lead can be harmful.
If a pregnant woman is exposed to lead, it can pass through the placenta and affect the unborn baby.
What are the sources of lead exposure?
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.
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 can lead poisoning be prevented?
There are ways to help prevent lead poisoning in children.
Around your home:
- Avoid homes and child-care near any known lead industry.
- Playing in the dirt near the house may be a problem. Teach children that it is important to wash their hands and toys after touching dust and dirt. Also teach children to avoid areas around the house where there might be paint chips or peeling paint such as door frames, baseboards, windowsills, sheds, garages and porch railings.
- Take care when renovating your house if it was built before 1970. Try to do the work when no children are around and make sure you dispose of all material that contains lead properly.
- Test for lead in any pre-1970 paint in your home and contact a professional for lead paint removal.
- If you suspect there is lead-based paint on the outside of your house, ask everyone to take their shoes off before coming into the house. Plant bushes next to the walls so children cannot play there.
- Have your water tested for lead. If there are concerns about lead from your pipes, discuss options with a registered plumber, and always use the cold water tap for drinking and cooking because hot water is likely to contain higher levels of lead.
Other ways to reduce the risk:
- 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.
- Ensure your children have a healthy and varied diet. Diet can have a major impact on how much lead is absorbed into the body. Children who are deficient in iron, calcium, and vitamin C are more susceptible to harm from lead exposure.
- Frequently wash children's hands, and family pets and toys.
- Regularly wet mop floors and stairs, and wash window sills to reduce dust.
- Be cautious about imported toys.
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.
Visit the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment website to learn more about lead poisoning.
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Last reviewed: January 2021