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Lead poisoning

5-minute read

Key facts

  • Lead can enter your body through breathing in or swallowing materials contaminated with lead, such as old paint or petrol.
  • Lead is a poison, and there is no safe level of lead exposure for anyone.
  • The risk of lead poisoning is highest for unborn babies, infants and children.
  • You should use ‘lead alert' practices if renovating or painting your home.

What is lead?

Lead is a type of metal usually present in very small amounts in soil. High levels of lead exposure can harm you. There is no safe level of lead exposure for anyone but the risk of lead poisoning is highest for unborn babies, infants and children. You may be able to reduce your exposure by learning more about the potential sources of lead in your environment.

What are sources of lead exposure?

Lead can enter your body mainly through breathing in or swallowing materials contaminated with lead.

Lead used to be added to paint and petrol, but now lead-free paints and unleaded petrol are more commonly used. The use of lead in things such as toys, cosmetics, ceramics and water pipes is now restricted in Australia. However, lead is still used in lead-acid batteries and some ceramic glazes. Some imported toys, jewellery, cosmetics and complementary medicines have been reported to be contaminated with lead. You can also be exposed to lead in your workplace, for example if you work with batteries or use lead-based spray paint.

Drinking water may contain small amounts of lead due to the lead solder (metal bonds) or fittings in older pipes.

Where might I be exposed to lead?

The following situations can increase your risk of lead exposure:

  • working in or living near lead mines and lead processing works
  • restoring older homes, furniture, cars or boats that have been painted with lead-based paints
  • working with or recycling objects containing lead such as car batteries and radiators
  • glazing or firing pottery
  • eating animals hunted with lead bullets
  • handling materials used in construction of the roof, gutters, piping and tanks

Try to avoid activities that can expose you to lead.

Babies and young children are at a greater risk of lead exposure, as they are more likely than adults to play on the ground or floor and put things in their mouths.

How can lead exposure affect my health?

The effects of lead exposure depend on your age, how much lead you were exposed to and for how long, as well as your general health. Symptoms of lead poisoning can be difficult to recognise.

What are the risks of lead exposure for children?

Lead exposure is most harmful to unborn babies, infants and young children. They absorb more lead from each exposure than adults and they're more susceptible to the health hazards, because their brains are still developing and growing.

Long-term exposure can cause problems, including:

Read more on protecting your child from lead poisoning.

What are the risks of lead exposure for adults?

Symptoms of lead exposure may include:

In adults and children, very high blood lead levels can cause encephalopathy (disturbance of the brain's functioning), leading to seizures, coma and even death.

If you're pregnant you need to avoid lead exposure because it can cross to your unborn baby through the placenta.

How will I know if I have lead poisoning?

You can be diagnosed with lead poisoning through a blood test. If the level of lead in your blood is greater than 5μg/dL, the source of lead exposure needs to be investigated and reduced.

How can I reduce my exposure to lead?

Be aware of the areas of your home that may have been painted with lead-based paint. Your house or apartment was probably painted with lead-based paint if it was built before the 1970s. Use 'lead alert practices' if you're renovating or painting your home.

What should I do if I've been exposed to lead?

See your doctor if you have concerns that you or your family have been exposed to lead. Your doctor can check your lead levels with a blood test.

How can I be treated for lead exposure?

Your doctor may recommend calcium supplements if you've been exposed to lead. If blood tests show that you have a high lead level in your blood, your doctor may recommend medical treatment called chelation therapy. These medicines attach to lead in your blood so your kidneys can remove it from your body.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2022


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