How Children Become Lead Poisoned

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Jeffrey Feuer and Benjamin Hiller

Children under 6 years of age are most vulnerable to lead poisoning by coming into contact with the lead dust and lead paint that is found in most older homes and apartments in Massachusetts. When old paint cracks or peels, or when lead-painted surfaces rub against each other or are bumped, lead dust or chips are created. Lead dust can be created by opening and closing painted windows and doors; repairing painted cabinets, baseboards, walls, and other painted areas in a home; and just through normal use in a house or apartment. The dust can settle on the floor, windowsills, furniture and other flat surfaces and can get on children's hands, toys and clothing when they come into contact with those surfaces.

Lead dust or small lead chips can get into children's bodies when they put their hands or toys or clothes in their mouths or noses or even when they are just standing near a surface that has lead dust on it and breathing normally. Children can also become lead poisoned by mouthing or licking lead-painted surfaces or eating small chips from cracking or peeling lead paint on walls, ceilings, and other surfaces. Even intact lead paint under layers of non-leaded paint can still poison children, especially when the paint is disturbed, such as through normal wear and tear or repair work.

The main source of lead exposure for children is lead paint. Lead was often used as an ingredient in household paints before 1978. The older the home, the more likely it is to have lead paint. The older the paint, the higher its lead content is likely to be. As lead paint gets older, it poses more of a health hazard because it is more likely to chip, crack or peel, creating lead dust and paint chips. As a result, lead paint, which existed in homes when today's adults were young children, poses an even greater threat now. The paint in older houses, built before 1945, may contain so much lead that a child exposed to the dust or chips from that paint could become seriously poisoned in a very short time.

Lead from chipping and peeling paint can also contaminate the soil around a building where a child may play and it can sometimes be found in drinking water, as well. Less common sources of lead exposure include ceramic dishes, brass containers, foreign or antique tea kettles (like samovars), stained glass, large batteries, bullets, fishing sinkers, and folk medicines or cosmetics from other countries. For information about food and consumer products that may contain lead, go to the Centers for Disease Control website.

Lead poisoning crosses all racial, geographic, and economic lines, as lead paint can be found in almost every home built before 1978. Although poor maintenance and cleaning habits can increase the risk of a child becoming lead poisoned, good maintenance and cleaning habits alone will not completely protect a child. Lead dust cannot be fully removed by normal household cleaning. In fact, using a vacuum cleaner or a broom to clean up lead paint chips or dust can spread lead dust into the air and over a wider area, creating a very dangerous situation for a young child. Lead dust is also created by normal activities such as opening and closing windows and doors. Even well-supervised children can become lead poisoned, as poisoning frequently occurs when children engage in the perfectly normal behavior of putting their hands, toys, and other objects into their mouths.

For tips on what you can do to protect your child from exposure to lead, see the Centers for Disease Control website.

High-risk communities for lead poisoning

As of October 2015, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (CLPPP) considered the following communities to be high risk for childhood lead poisoning: Boston, Brockton, Chelsea, Fall River, Fitchburg, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, New Bedford, North Adams, Pittsfield, Somerville, Southbridge, Springfield, and Worcester.

In addition to blood tests at the age of 9 months, 2 years, and 3 years, children living in these communities should be tested again at 4 years of age.4 For further information on high-risk communities, call the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at 800-532-9571.



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