Lead Poisoning


Lead poisoning is caused by swallowing or inhaling lead. Even small amounts of chipped lead paint or leaded dust can cause severe and lasting harm to children.

Are there any symptoms?

Signs of lead poisoning may not be present or may be mistaken for the flu or other illnesses. If present, symptoms may include stomach ache and cramps, fatigue, constipation, sleep disorders, irritability, frequent vomiting, headache, and poor appetite.

What damage can lead poisoning cause?

At low levels, lead poisoning can damage red blood cell production, cause hearing problems, slow a child’s development, and cause learning and behavioral problems such as hyperactivity, inability to pay attention, and quick frustration.  At high levels, lead poisoning can damage the nervous system, kidneys, reproductive system, and mental development.

Why are young children at a greater risk?

Children may consume lead because they put everything in their mouths. Young children’s bodies also absorb lead more easily than adults’ bodies do.  Their brains and nervous systems are still developing, therefore they are more sensitive to the effects of lead.

Where does lead poisoning come from?

There are a number of possible sources of lead in the environment:

  • Flaking paint chips
  • Leaded dust from renovation of older homes
  • Water from pipes made of lead or with lead soldering
  • Auto exhaust and industrial pollution
  • Soil or food contaminated with lead
  • Battery casing, fishing sinkers, or shotgun pellets
  • Contaminated work clothes
  • Antique pewter
  • Porcelain or pottery with lead glaze
  • Some folk medicines and cosmetics
  • Dust and fumes from hobbies that use lead, such as stained glass

Should children be screened for lead poisoning?

Children under the age of six, living in older homes and living in poverty have the highest risk for lead poisoning.  However, lead poisoning can affect any child regardless of race, economic status or living conditions.  Children should receive a finger stick blood lead test at 12 months and 24 months of age. A finger stick blood lead test should be performed on children 36-72 months that do not have a previously documented blood test.  Physicians and local health departments can recommend how often further screening should occur, based upon results of previous blood tests and answers to risk assessment questionnaire.

How can lead poisoning be prevented?

  • Know the dangers of lead
  • Look for signs of chipping or flaking paint
  • Make sure children put only safe, clean items in their mouths
  • Serve well-balanced meals—low in fats, high in iron and calcium
  • Don’t allow children to eat snow or icicles
  • Use safe interior paints on toys, walls and furniture
  • Use pottery only for decoration if you are unsure about the glaze
  • Store food in glass, plastic, or stainless steel containers—not in open cans
  • Have your water tested
  • Have children wash their hands before eating
  • If you work with lead, shower and change before going home and wash your clothes separately
  • Don’t let children wear imported jewelry that may contain lead

To learn more about lead poisoning, click here to visit our Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.

Healthcare providers, laboratories, and public health professionals can find more information about this disease and a variety of others at the Tennessee Department of Health Reportable Diseases and Events home page http://apps.health.tn.gov/ReportableDiseases/ReportableDisease.aspx