Common Questions About Lead

What is Lead?

Lead is a naturally occurring bluish-gray metal found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. Lead can be found in all parts of our environment. Much of it comes from human activities including burning fossil fuels, mining, and manufacturing.

Lead has many different uses. It is used in the production of batteries, ammunition, metal products (solder and pipes), and devices to shield X-rays. Because of health concerns, lead from paints and ceramic products, caulking, and pipe solder has been dramatically reduced in recent years. The use of lead as an additive to gasoline was banned in 1996 in the United States.

What happens to lead when it enters the environment?
  • Lead itself does not break down, but lead compounds are changed by sunlight, air, and water.
  • When lead is released to the air, it may travel long distances before settling to the ground.
  • Once lead falls onto soil, it usually sticks to soil particles.
  • Movement of lead from soil into groundwater will depend on the type of lead compound and the characteristics of the soil.
How can lead affect my health?

The effects of lead are the same whether it enters the body through breathing or swallowing. Lead can affect almost every organ and system in your body. The main target for lead toxicity is the nervous system, both in adults and children. Long-term exposure of adults can result in decreased performance in some tests that measure functions of the nervous system. It may also cause weakness in fingers, wrists, or ankles. Lead exposure also causes small increases in blood pressure, particularly in middle-aged and older people and can cause anemia. Exposure to high lead levels can severely damage the brain and kidneys in adults or children and ultimately cause death. In pregnant women, high levels of exposure to lead may cause miscarriage. High Level exposure in men can damage the organs responsible for sperm production.

Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to lead?

A blood test is available to measure the amount of lead in your blood and to estimate the amount of your recent exposure to lead. Blood tests are commonly used to screen children for lead poisoning. Lead in teeth or bones can be measured by X-ray techniques, but these methods are not widely available. Exposure to lead also can be evaluated by measuring erythrocyte protoporphyrin (EP) in blood samples. EP is a part of red blood cells known to increase when the amount of lead in the blood is high. However, the EP level is not sensitive enough to identify children with elevated blood lead levels below about 25 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL). These tests usually require special analytical equipment that is not available in a doctor’s office. However, your doctor can draw blood samples and send them to appropriate laboratories for analysis.

How does lead affect children?

Small children can be exposed by eating lead-based paint chips, chewing on objects painted with lead-based paint, or swallowing house dust or soil that contains lead.

Children are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults. A child who swallows large amounts of lead may develop blood anemia, severe stomachache, muscle weakness, and brain damage. If a child swallows smaller amounts of lead, much less severe effects on blood and brain function may occur. Even at much lower levels of exposure, lead can affect a child’s mental and physical growth.

Exposure to lead is more dangerous for young and unborn children. Unborn children can be exposed to lead through their mothers. Harmful effects include premature births, smaller babies, decreased mental ability in the infant, learning difficulties, and reduced growth in young children. These effects are more common if the mother or baby was exposed to high levels of lead. Some of these effects may persist beyond childhood.

What is a Lead Assessment?

Have a professional check your home for lead hazards. Home lead tests are available, but the EPA doesn’t recommend them because they may not be reliable.

  • Lead inspection. A lead inspection checks for lead presence in painted surfaces in your home, but it doesn’t determine whether the paint has dangerous levels of lead.
  • Risk assessment. A risk assessment is more comprehensive and tells you if your home contains dangerous lead sources, such as peeling paint, and tells you how to reduce or control the hazards.

If you live in a rental property and your child has an elevated blood lead level, your landlord may be required to take certain actions, depending on your local laws and regulations.

If you live in public housing and your 1- to 6-year-old child has an elevated blood lead level, federal regulations require that the housing authority perform a risk assessment upon being notified by your doctor. If hazards are identified, lead-abatement measures must be taken.

City of New Haven Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program

City of New Haven
Health Department
Bureau of Environmental Health
54 Meadow Street, 9th Floor
New Haven, CT 06519
(203) 946-8174