Lead Poisoning

What is lead poisoning?

Lead is present in small amounts in the air, soil, household dust, food, drinking water, and products like some cheap jewelry or toys. Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body. The build-up can take place over months or years.

Small amounts of lead can cause serious damage in children or unborn children in the womb (before the baby is born). Children’s small bodies absorb lead easily and are more at risk to its harmful effects. In large quantities, lead poisoning can be fatal to children and adults.

Signs and symptoms of lead poisoning

Sudden lead poisoning causes damage to the brain. A child may have seizures or go into a coma. Short-term exposure to high levels of lead can cause the following signs and symptoms:

  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • convulsions
  • coma
  • death

Severe cases of lead poisoning are rare in Canada. Long-term exposure is more common. Symptoms may include:

  • loss of appetite
  • stomach pain
  • constipation
  • fatigue
  • insomnia
  • headache

Causes

Lead poisoning has many causes. A common cause in young children is swallowing or licking lead-coated objects. Babies and young children often put non-food items in their mouth. Children can inhale contaminated dust or eat lead paint chips during a home renovation or move. Lead poisoning can also be caused by drinking water from lead-coated plumbing. Other sources of lead poisoning include:

  • contaminated air or soil
  • some toys, household items, and cosmetics
  • kohl eye make-up
  • glazed ceramics made outside of Canada
  • leaded glass
  • storage battery coverings
  • bullets

Complications

Lead poisoning is linked with harmful effects on children’s growth, attention, and behaviour. Other complications may include:

  • anemia
  • brain, kidney and nervous system damage

Low levels of lead can lead to lower intellect and poor hearing.

What a doctor can do for your child with lead poisoning

Your child’s doctor can order a blood test to determine your child’s lead exposure, however, this is not often necessary as lead poisoning is quite rare in Canada. Discuss your child’s exposures with your doctor to see if blood testing is necessary. Blood screening may be important if there is a high risk exposure, since lead exposure does not always lead to symptoms in children. Blood lead level tests are recommend only for children with risk factors.

Treatment

To treat lead poisoning, doctors try to flush out lead in the child’s intestines. They also give the child medicine called chelating agents. These are chemicals that can pull lead out of the bloodstream and into the urine so it can leave the body.

Removal of lead from the child’s environment is the main treatment.

Prevention

There are steps you can take to reduce the amount of lead exposure in your home.

Flush your pipes

Run the water for at least 1 minute if your water has not been used for more than a few hours.

Use cold water

Hot water carries more lead than cold water. Cook and drink only cold water from pipes.

Breastfeed your baby

Breast milk has much lower lead content than tap water.

Wash hands

Order your children to wash hands often. Lead dust is less likely to be ingested after a good wash.

Take off your shoes

Keep outdoor shoes outside your home. The dirt on the bottom of the shoes can contain lead from soil.

Be careful with paint

Older homes may have paints with lead. Do not sand or scrape the paint because it will increase lead dust.

Clean house often

Dust and clean your house regularly to remove dust particles that may contain lead.

Remove lead crystal

Avoid using lead crystal containers for food or beverages. Especially, do not serve pregnant women or children drinks in crystal glasses.

When to seek medical assistance

See your child’s regular doctor if:

  • you think your child may have been exposed to small amounts of lead

Take your child to the nearest Emergency Department, or call 911 if necessary, if your child:

  • has swallowed or licked a lead-coated toy or object
  • is suffering seizures, convulsions or coma

Key points

  • Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body.
  • The build up can take place over months or years.
  • A common cause of lead poisoning is licking a lead-coated object or inhaling dust from lead-based paint.
  • Lead poisoning is linked with harmful effects on children’s growth, attention, and behaviour. Low levels of lead can lead to lower intellect and poor hearing.
  • Removal of lead from the child’s environment is the main treatment.
  • Lead poisoning is quite rare in Canada

Mark Feldman, MD, FRCPC

5/7/2010

"Effects of lead on human health", Health Canada, Government of Canada. Last accessed May 2010.

"Health effects of lead", Toronto Public Health:  Last accessed May 2010.  

"Lead and Drinking Water", Government of Ontario, Ministry Of the Environment. Last accessed March 2010.

"Lead risk reduction strategy", Health Canada, Government of Canada. Last accessed May 2010.

Yeoh B, Woolfenden S, Wheeler DM, Alperstein G, Lanphear B. Household interventions for prevention of domestic lead exposure in children. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2008, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD006047.

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