Lead Exposure: Know the Signs

With Tuesday's announcement by Mattel Inc. of a second toy recall in as many weeks — due in part to lead poisoning fears — many parents may be worried about whether their children have been exposed to dangerous levels of the toxin.

Unfortunately, lead is notoriously hard to detect in the home environment and determining whether your child has been poisoned can also be challenging. The good news, however, is that parents can take steps to prevent exposure — and, if necessary, take advantage of treatment options for their exposed children.

What Is Lead Poisoning?

Lead is a highly toxic metal that has been used in a variety of products in the past and continues to surface in products today. Exposure to lead can lead to a wide range of ill effects for adults and children alike; however, childhood poisoning is both more frequent and more dangerous.

Though lead exposure among children has decreased over the decades, recent estimates by the National Safety Council suggest that 400,000 children younger than 6 still have unacceptably high levels of lead in their blood.

How Dangerous Is Childhood Lead Poisoning?

If untreated, elevated lead levels may lead to the following health impacts in children, according to the Mayo Clinic:

Nervous system and kidney damage

Learning disabilities

Speech, language and behavior problems

Poor muscle coordination

Decreased muscle and bone growth

Hearing damage

Because their brains and central nervous system are still developing, younger children — those younger than 6 — are particularly vulnerable to lead's harmful health effects. Even very low levels of exposure in this age group can result in reduced IQ, learning disabilities and other cognitive side effects. Lead poisoning has also been associated with juvenile delinquency and criminal behavior.

The highest level of exposure may cause mental retardation. A child also runs the risk of falling into a coma or even dying from lead poisoning, though this is rare.

Where Is Lead Found?

Lead particles are often microscopic, so they can be present in a number of places in the home completely unbeknownst to parents. Common sources are deteriorating paint — according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, about 38 million homes in the country still contain some lead paint — ceramics, certain home remedies and cosmetics and toys such as the ones recently recalled.

Unfortunately, babies and young children are especially susceptible to lead exposure because they have a tendency to put objects in their mouths. An amount of lead dust equivalent to a single grain of salt is all that is necessary to elevate a child's blood lead level.

What Are the Symptoms?

According to the Mayo Clinic, one of the major problems associated with detecting lead poisoning in a child is that children who appear healthy may still have high levels of lead in their bodies. Accumulation of lead in the body usually is gradual, with signs and symptoms normally only appearing once levels have become dangerously high.

Some possible signs and symptoms of lead poisoning in children are:


Loss of appetite

Weight loss


Abdominal pain



Unusual paleness (pallor) from anemia

Learning difficulties

How Is Lead Poisoning Treated?

Because lead is eliminated from the body over a period of time, the most crucial step in dealing with elevated lead levels in a child is eliminating the source of the poisoning — whether it be a contaminated toy or flaking lead paint in the home.

For more severe cases, doctors may recommend a treatment called chelation therapy. The medicines used in this therapy are injected into the bloodstream, where they bind with the lead and help the body eliminate it more quickly and completely.

Protect Your Family

Though lead is, in many cases, an invisible threat, parents can go a long way toward protecting their children by remaining vigilant.

Make sure to dispose of any toys that may contain lead. Also, be sure to maintain the paint in your home, especially if you live in a home built before 1978, when lead paint guidelines went into effect.

If you suspect that a child in your home has been poisoned with lead, seek a doctor's opinion as soon as possible. Your physician will be able to conduct tests to confirm whether or not your child is in danger and will be able to suggest the best course of action.

Sources: National Safety Council; Mayo Clinic; the National Institutes of Health