Lead Poisoning: What It Is, Symptoms, Health Effects & Treatment

lead poisoning
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Medically Reviewed By:
Mark Arredondo, M.D.

Most people think of young children eating chipped paint off old windowsills when they think of lead poisoning, but many adults can be exposed to the harmful heavy metal in their workplace.

Approximately 1 million people die each year due to lead poisoning, says the World Health Organization (WHO). Millions more encounter low levels of lead exposure that lead to lifelong health complications such as anemia, high blood pressure, weakened immune systems and harm to reproductive organs. Working with products or materials containing lead can enter your body and become toxic if exposure is excessive and prolonged.

Discover ways to safeguard yourself against lead-related health issues, especially if your job involves lead-based paint and dust exposure. Explore the causes and symptoms of lead poisoning, and its health impacts, treatments and strategies to minimize on-the-job lead exposure.

What is lead?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explains that lead is a naturally occurring element in small quantities within the Earth's crust. While it serves some useful purposes, it poses a threat to both humans and animals due to its toxic nature.

Lead can be present in the air, soil, water and even in homes. Human activities, such as using fossil fuels, certain industrial processes and the prior use of lead-based paint in residences, contribute significantly to lead exposure.

Lead and its compounds have been utilized in various products in and around the home, such as paint, ceramics, plumbing materials, solders, gasoline, batteries, ammunition and even cosmetics.

What is lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning occurs when the body accumulates excessive levels of lead over extended periods, often months or even years. Even minute amounts of lead can result in severe health issues, and lead poisoning can be fatal at exceptionally high levels.

Common sources of lead poisoning include lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust found in older buildings. Other potential sources include contaminated air, water and soil. Additionally, adults working with batteries, engaging in home renovations, or being employed in auto repair shops may also face exposure to lead.

How do you get lead poisoning?

As per the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), lead has a long history as one of the earliest metals used by humans, dating back to the 4th century B.C. when it caused the first recorded occupational disease known as lead colic in a metal worker. In 2018, the United States produced approximately 1.3 million metric tons of lead, primarily from secondary refining of scrap metal like lead-acid batteries and from 10 mines, primarily located in Alaska and Missouri.

Lead typically enters the body through inhalation and ingestion. Today, adults face lead exposure primarily through inhaling lead-containing dust and fumes in their workplaces or through hobbies involving lead. Once inhaled, lead passes from the lungs into the bloodstream, damaging various organs.

Although inorganic lead does not easily penetrate the skin, it can enter the body through accidental ingestion, such as eating, drinking or smoking after contact with lead-contaminated hands, clothing or surfaces. Workers exposed to lead may develop a range of health issues, including neurological and gastrointestinal effects, anemia and kidney disease. Vigilance and protective measures are crucial to mitigate workplace lead exposure.

Signs and symptoms of lead poisoning

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), even at the lowest levels of exposure, lead poisoning symptoms can include:

  • Decreased learning and memory

  • Decreased verbal ability

  • Early signs of hyperactivity or ADHD

  • Impaired speech and hearing functions

  • Lowered IQ

  • Irritability

  • Lethargy

  • Mild fatigue

  • Myalgia or paresthesia

  • Occasional abdominal discomfort

At moderate levels of exposure, lead toxicity can cause the following signs and symptoms:

  • Joint pain

  • Constipation

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Muscular exhaustibility

  • Diffuse abdominal pain

  • General fatigue

  • Headache

  • Tremor

  • Vomiting

  • Weight loss

And at the highest levels of exposure, patients can experience:

  • Colic (intermittent, severe abdominal cramps)

  • Encephalopathy (can lead to sudden seizure, change in consciousness, coma and even death)

  • Paralysis

Effects of lead poisoning

In a video produced by the WHO, Lesley Onyon, a toxicologist and unit head for chemical, safety and health at WHO, sheds light on the wide-ranging effects of lead poisoning. She highlights that while lead exposure poses a risk to all, three groups are particularly vulnerable: children under the age of 5; pregnant and lactating mothers; and adults in occupational settings.

The neurological effects of lead poisoning can vary in severity, encompassing symptoms like:

  • Irritability

  • Behavioral changes

  • Clumsiness

  • Encephalopathy (brain disease)

  • Coma

  • Convulsions

  • Death

Furthermore, adults are not immune to lead's harmful impacts, with an increased risk of cardiovascular and renal diseases, especially among those with occupational exposure. Recognizing the risks and taking proactive steps to reduce exposure is critical to safeguard the health of vulnerable workers.

Lead poisoning treatment

The Mayo Clinic explains that the initial step in addressing lead poisoning involves the removal of the source of contamination. If complete removal isn't feasible, measures to minimize potential harm may be taken.

Sometimes, it's more practical to seal old lead paint rather than remove it, a decision that can be guided by your local health department's recommendations for identifying and mitigating lead hazards in your environment.

For individuals with relatively low lead levels, avoiding further exposure is often enough to lower blood lead levels.

In more severe cases, health care professionals may recommend:

  • Chelation therapy: This treatment involves administering a lead poisoning medication orally that binds with lead, facilitating its elimination through urine. It is typically recommended for adults with elevated lead levels or symptoms of lead poisoning.

  • Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) chelation therapy: When conventional chelation therapy is unsuitable, adults with lead levels exceeding 45 mcg/dL may receive EDTA chelation therapy, often using a chemical called calcium disodium EDTA, administered via injection.

How to reduce exposure to lead

While the EPA has initiated various efforts to combat lead exposure, there are practical steps individuals can take to minimize their risk. The Mayo Clinic offers the following recommendations:

  • Hand hygiene: Wash hands regularly to prevent hand-to-mouth transfer of lead-contaminated dust or soil.

  • Clean dusty surfaces: Use a wet mop to clean floors and damp cloths to wipe down dusty surfaces, including furniture and windowsills.

  • Shoe removal: Remove shoes before entering your home to prevent lead-based soil from being tracked indoors.

  • Cold water usage: Run cold water for at least one minute before using if your plumbing contains lead pipes or fittings. Avoid using hot tap water for cooking or making baby formula.

  • Soil safety: Stay away from potentially lead-contaminated soil.

  • Healthy diet: Ensure a nutritious diet with adequate calcium, vitamin C and iron to help reduce lead absorption.

  • Home maintenance: Regularly check for peeling paint, especially if your home has lead-based paint, and address issues promptly. Avoid sanding, as it can generate lead-containing dust particles.

For workers, especially those in occupations with potential lead exposure, following workplace safety protocols, using personal protective equipment and seeking medical evaluation when necessary are crucial in preventing lead poisoning.


World Health Organization: Almost 1 Million People Die Every Year Due to Lead Poisoning

Environmental Protection Agency: Learn About Lead

Environmental Protection Agency : EPA Activities for Reducing Lead Exposures

Mayo Clinic: Lead Poisoning

Mayo Clinic: Lead Poisoning (Treatment)

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA): Lead

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR): Lead Toxicity

WHO’s Science in 5: Lead Poisoning Prevention - 29, October 2021

What This Means For You

Lead poisoning can happen at work. Here's details about its symptoms and treatments, along with tips on preventing lead poisoning in the first place.

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