KY Cabinet for Health Services
Department for Public Health
Ensuring the Health of Kentucky
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Lead Program
275 East Main Street
Frankfort, KY  40621
(502) 564-4537

Health Effects Of Lead

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Lead is poisonous because it interferes with some of the body's basic functions.  A human body cannot tell the difference between lead and calcium, which is a mineral that strengthens bones.  Like calcium, lead remains in the bloodstream for a few weeks, then it is absorbed into the bones where it can collect for a lifetime.

Lead can affect anyone, but children ages 6 and younger face special hazards.  In part, this is because the bodies of children in this age group develop rapidly.  It is also because young children tend to put things in their mouths.

It is important to know that even exposure to low levels of lead can permanently affect children.  In low levels, lead can cause:

  • Nervous system and kidney damage.
  • Learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, and decreased intelligence.
  • Speech, language, and behavior problems.
  • Poor muscle coordination.
  • Decreased muscle and bone growth.
  • Hearing damage.

While low-level exposure is most common, exposure to high levels of lead can have devastating effects on children, including seizures, unconsciousness, and in some cases, death.

Although children are especially susceptible to lead exposure, lead can be dangerous for adults too.  In adults, high lead levels can cause:

  • Increased chance of illness during pregnancy.
  • Harm to a fetus, including brain damage or death.
  • Fertility problems in men and women.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Digestive problems.
  • Nerve disorders.
  • Memory and concentration problems.
  • Muscle and joint pain.

Lead poisoning is not easy to detect.  Sometimes no symptoms occur, and sometimes the symptoms are the same as those of more common illnesses.   Some of the early signs and symptoms of lead poisoning in children are:

  • Persistent tiredness or hyperactivity.
  • Irritability.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Weight loss.
  • Reduced attention span.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Constipation.
check mark Lead enters the body through the mouth or nose.  Lead is not absorbed through the skin.  A child does not have to eat paint chips to get lead poisoning.  It is more common for a child to get lead poisoning by swallowing lead dust.

check mark The only way to know if you have lead poisoning is to get a blood test from your doctor.  Many people mistake the symptoms of lead poisoning for other common illnesses, such as a cold or the flu.  Sometimes there are no symptoms at all. Your family, especially your children, should be tested for lead.  It is the only way to detect lead poisoning.

check mark In the US, approximately 900,000 children ages 1-5 have a blood lead level exceeding the level of concern.

check mark Children who eat healthy foods are less likely to get lead poisoning.  Less lead is absorbed when children have food in their systems.  Fried and fatty foods allow the body to absorb lead faster.

check mark Lead-based paint is most often found around windows, in kitchens and in bathrooms.

For more information on lead issues with children, contact:
KY Department for Public Health
Division of Adult & Child Health
Clinical Health Branch
(502) 564-3527

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Updated: 06/26/2003
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