Lead Poisoning

Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention of Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning usually develops slowly over a long period of time when a child swallows or inhales small amounts of products containing lead. It usually occurs when a child chews on objects containing lead, such as old paint chips or lead-painted toys. Children are usually more prone to lead poisoning compared to adults, as they tend to put things in their mouths. Lead is much more harmful to children because it can cause problems with a child’s developing brain and nervous system. The younger the child, the more harmful the effects of lead poisoning.

Symptoms

Symptoms of lead poisoning develop slowly over a long time. The most common symptoms include:

  • decreased appetite and energy level
  • difficulty sleeping
  • aggressive behavior
  • extreme irritability
  • headaches
  • anemia
  • abdominal pain
  • constipation
  • developmental delays

Symptoms of exposure to a very high toxic does of lead include:

  • severe abdominal pain and cramping
  • vomiting
  • difficulty walking
  • seizure or coma that can lead to death

Common Items That May Contain Lead

  • lead-based paint on an old house (Any house built before 1978 may have lead-based paint on its walls.)
  • fishing weights
  • lead bullets
  • toys and furniture painted before 1976
  • plumbing, pipes, and faucets in homes whose pipes have been connected with lead soldering
  • soil, especially if it is exposed to years and years of car exhaust or old paint scrapings from houses
  • paint sets and other art supplies
  • pewter eating utensils
  • soldering materials, certain pottery glazes
  • lead figurines
  • painted toys from outside the United States
  • exhaust from nearby power plants, especially if coal-burning
  • exhaust from nearby freeway truck traffic

Long-Term Complications

Exposure over long periods of time to low levels of lead can result in the following complications:

  • diminished growth rate
  • hearing problems
  • lower IQ
  • problems with attention or behavior
  • kidney problems

Treatment

Treatment of low-dose lead exposure over a long period of time involves first testing the blood for the presence of lead. This will show how high the lead level in your child’s bloodstream is. Many states have lead screening programs for preschool-age children. Treatment depends on the level of lead in the blood. Low levels of lead are often treated simply by removing the offending agent or agents from the child’s contact. The doctor will then retest the level of lead in the blood at a later date to insure that the level has returned to normal. In cases where higher levels of lead exist, treatment may involve chelation therapy. This involves using agents that bind to the lead in the blood and help the body to excrete it faster.

Your doctor may decide to perform other blood tests if elevated lead levels are found. These may include testing the blood level to screen for anemia, bone marrow biopsy to evaluate lead in the bones, or X-rays of certain bones in the body.

Prevention

  • Discard old painted toys or other objects if you are not sure about the paint containing lead.
  • Find out whether the plumbing system of your house used lead soldering in construction.
  • Have the paint of your house evaluated if you are unsure whether or not lead-based paint was used. This is especially true for houses built prior to 1978.
  • If you’re worried about lead in your water system, have the lead level of your water tested.

For further questions and advice regarding lead poisoning or exposure, contact the national poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

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