Lead poisoning: What everyone needs to know

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Follow me at @drClaire

The lead poisoning of thousands of children in Flint, Michigan is tragic — and should never have happened. If we are going to make sure that nothing like it happens again, all of us, especially parents, need to learn about lead poisoning.

Lead is a chemical that used to be commonly found in paint, gasoline, and factory emissions. It also was used to make pipes, as well as the solder that holds them together. But once the toxicity of lead was fully understood, there were laws and regulations put in place to limit its use, and to limit the exposure of children and pregnant women to lead. The problem is, there’s still a whole lot of lead out there, especially in older, poorer communities.

The reason we really don’t want children and pregnant women to be exposed to lead is that it can affect the developing brain. Exposure to lead can lead to a lower IQ, as well as learning and behavior problems that can last a lifetime. Slowly and silently, it can change a child’s life forever.

That’s what’s so hard about lead: it can be invisible, and do its damage without being noticed. If children eat something with a lot of lead — like a bunch of lead paint chips — and therefore have a high level of lead in their blood, they may have noticeable symptoms such as headache, constipation, vomiting, or confusion. But those kinds of exposures are (thankfully) uncommon.

The more common kinds of exposure are from dust in houses with lead paint, from water contaminated with lead (by passing through old pipes, which is what happened in Flint), or from toys, jewelry, tableware, or home remedies that may be contaminated with lead. These kinds of exposures don’t usually cause symptoms before they cause damage.

Here’s what parents and caregivers of children need to know and do:

  • If your home was built before 1978, make sure you know if it has any lead paint. If you aren’t sure, get it inspected.
  • If you are going to have lead removed, or do renovations in an older house that may have lead paint under layers of other paint or wallpaper, make sure that the work is done by people who are certified in lead removal. For more information about this, check out the EPA’s web page.
  • Ask questions about the possibility of lead in your tap water. Lead can leach into the water from old pipes in your house, as well as pipes leading to your house. In Flint, the problem was that the city’s supply was changed to a river that had very corrosive water, and this water made lead leach into the water. (Sadly, even though they’ve changed the water supply, the damage done to the pipes is causing lead to still get into the water.) If you aren’t able to get good answers, or if you just aren’t sure, get your water tested. If you have well water, it should be tested when the well is first built and again if a pregnant woman or child younger than 18 moves in.
  • Be mindful of possible exposure from household objects, usually ones made in other countries. The Consumer Products Safety Commission has information about recalls, as well as about products that may contain lead.
  • Get your child tested for lead. Every child should be tested at least at ages 1 and 2, and again at 3 and 4 in areas with older housing stock. However, your doctor can do a simple blood test (preferably not a finger stick) to check at any time if there is a concern about a possible exposure. While no level of lead is normal or fine, a level of 5 or higher is considered dangerous.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has lots of great resources about lead and its effects, as does the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s so important that all of us learn about this terrible, silent poison — and keep our children safe from it.


  1. Tammy

    I need a professional to write me a letter that any amount of lead can cause damage. Most doctors will only say the standards are above 5 as they used to be 10. Why is it so hard for doctors to say that no lead levels are safe? I hope to call the health department and the Center for disease control. My children’s doctor wrote a letter but it was useless as it basically says if the lead is not above 5 it is fine for them to be in a home that has had lead and under construction by my ex spouse. Where would you suggest I get this type of information to prove that any lead level is dangerous?

  2. MK

    What will it take for Harvard University to publish their own water quality data, for each facility? Why must employees remain in the dark?

  3. Marvie Nimms

    Is it really so hard to just sit with the discomfort we feel in hearing that our smallest citizens have been poisoned with an extremely potent neuro toxin? I don’t care how smart you are or what your philosophical musings are. I care about the fact that LEAD, the poison we all thought was a non issue remains a problem thirty eight years after it was supposedly dealt with. My grand daughter had a lead level of 54. She lives in CT. Lead lines in her bones! It’s not over. WE NEED TO ACKNOWLEDGE LEAD IS STILL A PROBLEM IN OUR COUNTRY.

  4. Richard Betancourt

    If one’s child does test at five and above, is the damage already done, and if so, is it irreversible given the brain is still evolving virtually everyday at that very young age? If lead is discovered in the blood stream, can it be removed? Are commercially available filter systems capable of removing all traces of lead in the water passing through them? Is drinking wine from crystal goblets a risk for lead exposure from the action of the often acidic wine poured into them? Ditto for the crystal decanters used for long-term storage of brandies and/or other alcoholic beverages?

  5. Jason

    What about the damage that has already been done to the entire boomer generation, from TEL-gasoline? The data says the entire generation of boomers have brain damage. Could it be possible, that, what is considered normal behavior and health for the boomer generation, is a result of damage from lead? How do we benchmark a sound mind? Boomers are our political leaders and policy writers. This is a paradox that need addressed.

    • Bernard Corrigan

      You have just answered the question of how the Tea Party has come to be. The Tea Party advocates policies which are directly opposed to the personal well being of most of the members of the Tea Party. Most Tea Party members are Boomers or older and lead induced group dementia could be the root of this self destructive behavior.

      • Ann Jameson

        Mr. Corrigan, please read the Guidelines: “This blog aims to provide reliable information as well as healthy dialog about the topics covered. ”

        Do you have reliable, science-based evidence that would show Tea Party members could have “lead-induced group dementia”?

        Do you include Boomers Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, and scores of other in your group? President Obama birth date puts him about 1 year outside the Boomer group; do you think he might be affected? How about the millions of Boomers who are liberals?

        I am not a TEA party member; I’m a registered Democrat. But I don’t consider anyone who is far to the left or right of my views to be demented. You illustrate much of what is wrong with our society by attacking those with whom you disagree.