Health Advice



Take the lead on lead poisoning

Marissa Hauptman, M.D., MPH, and Ryan Brewster, M.D., Harvard Health Blog on

Published in Health & Fitness

Through much of the 20th century, lead was a common part of American life. It was used in paints, plumbing fixtures, water pipes, and many consumer goods. Automobiles guzzled leaded gasoline to improve engine performance. Meanwhile, the medical community increasingly recognized the toxic effects of lead on the body, particularly in children. Since the 1970s, sweeping regulations have dramatically reduced lead exposure in our homes, products and environment.

Unfortunately, the lead poisoning epidemic is far from behind us. A recent study in JAMA Pediatrics found that more than half of children tested around the country had detectable levels of lead in their blood. Continued concerns have recently led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to reduce the blood lead reference value, which is used to identify the highest-risk patients.

Here’s what you should know about the new guidelines, the sources and dangers of lead exposure, and how to protect yourself and your family.

How could I be exposed to lead?

Although consumer uses were banned by the federal government in 1978, lead-based paint remains the most significant source of lead exposure. In homes built before 1978, peeling, cracking, or otherwise deteriorating lead paint can be hazardous, along with the dust created from frequently touched surfaces such as doors, windows, and stairways. This exposure commonly arises from normal hand-to-mouth behavior in an environment with dust that is contaminated with lead. Young children are more likely to have elevated blood lead levels because of differences in how they interact with their environment. Nutrition also plays a role: if children have iron deficiency, they are going to absorb more lead from their gastrointestinal tracts than children without iron deficiency.

Other potential sources include:


Importantly, the burden of lead exposure is not uniform. Black, low-income, and immigrant populations are most likely to have elevated lead levels compared to the national average.

What are the health effects?

There is no safe level of lead in the body. Children under 6 years old are the most vulnerable because their bodies are rapidly growing and developing. Symptoms may not be present immediately, but exposure to even low amounts of lead can damage the brain and nervous system. Long-term effects on learning, hearing, attention, and behavior can occur.

In pregnant women who have been exposed, lead can be released from the bones and cross the placenta. This can impact the fetus’s nervous system and growth. There is also a risk of premature delivery or miscarriage.


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