Concerned About Lead?

Childhood lead poisoning is a major, preventable public health concern. There is no safe blood lead level. Blood lead level testing is required by the Code of Virginia for certain children and recommended for others. This provides general information about lead and additional resources.

Page updated on Sep 12, 2016 at 3:49 PM

What is Lead?

Lead is a soft, dense metal used to make many products. It may be found in ceramic dishes, glassware, old plumbing, fishing weights, bullets, car batteries, and electronics among other things. Years ago, it was added to gasoline and to paint. Because of health problems, lead was banned from paint in 1978 and from gasoline in 1996.

Why is Lead a Problem?

Lead is toxic, or poisonous, to people if it gets inside the body. Lead can damage many organs, especially the nervous system, brain, and kidneys. It can interfere with normal brain development, causing reading and learning problems, damage to hearing, restricted growth, behavioral problems, and even permanent neurologic damage. At very high levels lead can cause seizures, coma, and even death. Lead toxicity can be particularly dangerous for children. 

How Does Lead Get Into the Body?

Lead gets into the body in many ways. Adults and children can get lead into their bodies if they:

  • Breathe in lead dust (especially during activities such as renovations, repairs, or painting that disturbs painted surfaces)
  • Swallow lead dust that has settled on food, food preparation surfaces, and other places
  • Eat paint chips or soil that contains lead
  • Use cosmetics or products purchased outside the United States that contain lead

How do I Prevent Exposure to Lead?

There are a number of things you can do to prevent exposure of lead for yourself and your children.

Your home...

  • If you live in a building built before 1978, the paint may contain lead. Often the soil around the building also contains lead. Use lead-safe work practices when performing any renovations or maintenance and keep bare soil covered with mulch or vegetation.
  • Damp mop floors and surfaces like windowsills often to remove lead
  • Discourage your child from playing in bare soil; frequently wash your child’s hands, toys, and pacifiers
  • The Environmental Protection Agency considers a home at high risk for lead plumbing if it was built before 1940 or contains copper pipe and lead solder built before 1988 – go to alexandriava.gov/90119 for more information about lead in drinking water (including prevention measures and how you can get your water tested)
  • Ceramic pottery or dishes, and pewter or brass containers, handcrafted or produced in cottage industries and not officially imported into the United States
  • Leaded crystal for storing or serving food or beverages
  • Dishes that are chipped or cracked
  • Exposure to others’ who smoke (“second-hand smoke” increases lead levels)

Your occupation and hobbies...

Certain jobs and hobbies may expose you to lead. These include activities that involve:

  • House painting or renovation
  • Furniture refinishing
  • Stained glass
  • Firearms
  • Recycling or making automobile batteries

Adults can bring invisible lead particles into their home if they have a job or a hobby that exposes them to lead. To reduce exposing others in your home, shower immediately upon arriving, or even before returning, home.

Certain items that younger children might “mouth”...

Below is a list of items that may contain lead and could cause lead poisoning if children put them in their mouths (even if they don’t swallow them):

  • Toy jewelry
  • Fishing weights or lures
  • Bullets, buckshot, and musket balls
  • Imported or antique toys with painted surfaces
  • Vinyl mini-blinds made before 1997 (can produce dust that can be picked up by children)
  • Handcrafted or foreign-made ceramic dishes may contain lead that can get into food or drink

Cosmetics and foods...

Avoid the following:

  • Folk medicines or remedies, like azarcon, pay-loo-ah, or ayurvedic medicines that were not produced or officially imported into the United States
  • Cosmetics such as kohl, kajal, surma that are produced outside the US
  • Food, food additives, candies and spices that have been brought into the country by travelers from outside the US, especially if they appear to be noncommercial products of unknown safety.
  • Nonfood items, such as clay, soil, pottery, or paint chips, because they may be contaminated with lead

Things you and your family SHOULD DO to reduce the risk to lead exposure:

  • Avoid the use of cigarettes and alcohol – second-hand smoke increases exposures to others
  • Consume a healthy, balanced, low fat diet with appropriate amounts of calcium, iron and vitamin C (a healthy diet makes it less likely that you or your child will absorb lead)
  • Stay alert to recalls of toys or products that may contain harmful amounts of lead. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) keeps a list on their website: www.cpsc.gov. The list is updated often.

Tell Me More about Lead and Children

The biggest source of childhood lead poisoning is from paint in homes built before 1978 (before lead paint was banned). As old paint ages, it may chip and peel, or form invisible lead dust. Lead dust can also form when painted surfaces are rubbed together, scraped, or sanded, like in a window frame or while a home is being renovated. The dust settles on places where babies and young children crawl and play. They swallow lead when they touch dust-covered surfaces and then place their hands in their mouths. Children may also eat visible chips of paint.

Is my child at risk?

Lead poisoning can affect any child. Lead is especially dangerous to children under the age of 6 because children’s brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. Children under age three are at the greatest risk of exposure because they frequently put their hands and objects in their mouths.

How do I know if my child has lead poisoning?

Sometimes children with lead poisoning have stomach aches or irritability, but most of the time there are no symptoms at all. Your child’s doctor can do a blood test. That is the only way to be sure whether or not there has been an exposure to lead. Children less than 6 years old who are at risk for lead poisoning should be tested even if they do not appear sick. The only way to be sure if your child has lead poisoning is through a blood test performed at your doctor’s office.

Should I have my child tested for lead poisoning?

The Code of Virginia (following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations) requires testing as follows:

1) All children at 12 months of age

2) All children at 24 months

3) Children age 2-6 years if they meet any of the following criteria:

  • Have never been tested for lead before
  • Previously had an elevated blood lead level, but did not have a subsequent test demonstrating that it is no longer elevated
  • Receive public assistance due to low income status (e.g. Medicaid or WIC Nutrition Services)
  • Live in a building or frequently visit a house built before 1960
  • Visit a house or apartment built before 1978 that has recently been remodeled
  • Have a sibling, housemate, or playmate who has or had an elevated blood lead level
  • Live with an adult whose job, hobby, or other activity involves lead exposure
  • Live near an active lead smelter, battery recycling plant, or other industry likely to release lead
  • Whose parent or guardian requests the child’s blood be tested
  • Is a recent refugee or immigrant or is adopted from outside the United States

Additionally – you should have your child tested if you have any concerns about the possibility of lead exposure or lead toxicity. Discuss this with your child’s pediatrician or family doctor.

How is the lead test done? Where can I get my child tested?

Lead is tested through a test of the blood. The results are reported to the doctor who orders the test. 

You can get your child tested through your child’s pediatrician or family doctor. 

I am Pregnant – Should I be Worried about Lead?

Pregnant women with high lead levels in their bodies before or during pregnancy may expose the fetus to lead. This can be dangerous to their developing baby – it may cause their baby to be low birthweight or to have congenital anomalies. In addition, lead can cause pregnant women to have complications of pregnancy such as hypertension (or high blood pressure) or preterm delivery.

Common risk factors for pregnant women include recent immigration; practicing pica; occupational exposure (see “How Do I Prevent Exposure to Lead” above); use of alternative remedies or cosmetics that contain lead; use of traditional lead glazed pottery; and poor nutritional status.

Women who are at risk should be tested for blood lead levels as soon as possible – even before conception. All women who are concerned, even if they do not have the risk factors listed above, should be tested.

Lead exposure during breastfeeding can result in lasting adverse health effects.

See “How Do I Prevent Exposure to Lead” above. And talk to your doctor about having a blood test for lead.

What is Alexandria Health Department Doing about Lead?

Elevated blood lead levels are reportable by healthcare providers to the Alexandria Health Department (AHD) by state law. AHD provides a number of lead-related public health functions; we

  • Provide education, guidance and technical assistance to healthcare providers about lead toxicity and testing for lead
  • Conduct Environmental Health assessments of residences of persons where high lead levels have been detected in their blood
  • Offer public health nursing follow-up of persons who have high lead levels detected in their blood
  • Provide technical assistance to City and community partners to assure that Alexandrians are protected from potential sources of lead poisoning

Handouts and Additional Resources

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