Lead Exposure

peeling paint

Lead Exposure

Excerpts of this content from Public Health Insider, produced by Public Health - Seattle & King County.

Lead is a heavy metal that is naturally present in the earth. Throughout history it has been widely used in products, and this led to widespread distribution into the environment. It can be found in air, water and soil and is invisible to the naked eye, and has no smell. When lead enters the body it is a poison and can be harmful. 

What are the impacts of lead exposure?

In Children

Lead poisoning does not always have obvious immediate symptoms. It can affect the kidneys and other organs, hearing and speech development, and it can cause an upset stomach. It is most known for its effects on the nervous system, altering neuronal growth and causing permanent damage.

During the first two years of life, when development is critical, lead exposure can affect the brain and result in learning and attention disorders and aggression, as well as behavioral and social/emotional problems. It can also lower IQ and alter a child’s future workforce potential. Younger children are at a greater risk because they put many things into their mouths and their bodies absorb lead more easily than adults do.

Because lead exposure symptoms are like other childhood problems, lead poisoning is sometimes mistaken for other ailments.  Many children with lead poisoning don't show any signs of being sick, so it's important to eliminate lead risks at home and to have young children tested for lead exposure.

Pregnant Women
Lead can also be harmful to pregnant women and their unborn baby. Too much lead in a pregnant woman's body can put them at risk for miscarriage, cause a baby to be born too early or too small, hurt a baby's brain, kidneys and nervous system, and cause a child to have learning or behavior problems. For more on preventing lead poisoning during pregnancy, visit the CDC's website.

In Adults
People with high levels of lead in their bodies may not seem sick. The symptoms that occur are very general and can happen for many reasons. Overexposure to lead can cause serious damage even if the person has no symptoms. A blood test for lead is the only way to find out if an adult has lead poisoning. Some common symptoms of lead poisoning in adults are:
- Tiredness or weakness
- Irritability
- Trouble sleeping
- Headache
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea
- Difficulty concentrating


Who is most at risk?

Children six years of age and under are at highest risk for lead exposure.
In Idaho, the children most at-risk for elevated blood lead levels include:
- recent immigrants (prior lead exposure outside the U.S.)
- very low income families
- those with parents exposed to lead at work or from hobbies
- those who participate in hobbies with lead exposure (ex. at indoor firing range).


How can I prevent lead exposure?

Lead-based paint and lead contaminated dust are the most common sources of lead for young children. Homes built before 1978 have a high potential of having lead-based paint, so it is important to prevent exposure. More information is available on the CDC's website.

It is possible to reduce exposure to lead in drinking water by flushing pipes before drinking, only consuming cold water and testing for lead. More information is available on the DEQ's website.

- Take your shoes off when you enter the house – leave the dirt outside
- Damp dust and mop once a week
- Wash hands before eating, drinking, and sleeping
- Wipe down toys
- Bring in clean garden soil and establish raised beds when gardening
- When possible, choose outdoor play areas that have fresh ground cover (bark or grass) and are free of paint chips
- If you are renovating your home and it is older than 1980, be sure to hire a contractor trained in lead safe work practices (for more information see the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended lead-safe work practices) to avoid contaminating your home with lead dust


Who should be tested for lead?

A blood test is the only way to find out if a person has lead poisoning. Levels are typically tested first through a finger-stick screening. If results indicate the presence of lead, a blood draw will be done. False positive are possible with finger-stick screenings.

Children should be tested at 12 months and again at age 2. Additional testing may be necessary for children who are exposed to lead. Your health care provider can perform these tests.

In Idaho, children who are Medicaid recipients are typically tested for lead exposure at the age of 2.
CDH does not offer lead testing. For more on the Idaho Medicaid Lead Testing Program, click HERE

CDC case studies have demonstrated that exposure to a water source with elevated lead levels does not always necessitate blood lead testing. Additional information HERE. Lead levels in Boise’s drinking water are not elevated so if lead is present, it is typically from the fixture or plumbing components.



Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)
Boise School District
Idaho Department of Health and Welfare - Lead Web Page
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - Lead Information for Parents