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Lead poisoning

3-minute read

Lead is a type of metal usually present in very small amounts in soil. High levels of lead exposure can be harmful. 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.

Sources of lead exposure

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

Lead used to be added to paint and petrol. 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. It is also possible to be exposed to lead in the workplace, for example when working with batteries or using lead-based spray paint.

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

Who may 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
  • materials used in construction of the roof, gutters, piping and tanks

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.

Pregnant women need to avoid lead exposure because the lead in their bodies can cross to their unborn babies through the placenta. The dangers of lead exposure are higher for babies and young children than for adults because their brains are still developing and growing rapidly.

Symptoms of lead exposure

Blood level levels of more than 10 micrograms per decilitre (10 μg/dL) can harm your organs.

However, symptoms of lead poisoning can be difficult to recognise. They may include:

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

Long-term exposure to lower levels of lead can cause:

  • learning difficulties
  • behavioural issues
  • reduced intelligence (IQ)
  • poor coordination
  • slower growth
  • anaemia
  • problems with the heart rate
  • fertility issues

Diagnosis and treatment of lead poisoning

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

Reducing 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 renovating or painting your home.

Try to avoid activities that can expose you to lead.

Where to go to for help

See your doctor if you have concerns that you or your family have been exposed to lead.

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

Last reviewed: May 2020

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