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Preventing lead poisoning Children's Wisconsin Wisconsin Poison Center

Lead: How to prevent this invisible danger from hiding in your home

As a doctor and member of the Wisconsin Poison Center, I regularly work with families to help them understand and prevent accidental poisonings. One issue I often talk to families about and that has been in the news a lot lately is lead poisoning. It’s not something that is top of mind for most families when you think of health and wellness, but lead is something that can be harmful to kids and adults alike. 

Lead is a dangerous metal found in the environment. It can be found in dirt and dust, some things we eat, paint in old houses and contaminated water. Even very small amounts of lead are not safe for children. 

Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over months or years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. Children younger than 6 years old are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal.

More than 500,000 children in the United States are believed to have some level of lead poisoning. A child can have lead poisoning and not look or act sick. Below are some common signs and symptoms of kids with lead poisoning:  

  • Developmental delay

  • Learning difficulties

  • Irritability

  • Loss of appetite

  • Weight loss

  • Sluggishness and fatigue

  • Abdominal pain

  • Vomiting

  • Constipation

  • Hearing loss

  • Seizure

  • Eating things that aren't food, such as paint chips

Here are a few tips my colleagues at the Wisconsin Poison Center came up with for preventing lead poisoning:

Test early: Lead poisoning can make it hard for children to think, pay attention and behave. Your child’s pediatrician should perform a blood lead test for your child at 1 and 2 years of age. If you live in Milwaukee or Racine County, it's recommended your child gets a blood lead test three times before the age of 3  at around 12 months, 18 months and 24 months.

Older houses: Paint used in houses built prior to 1978 is likely to contain lead. Keep the paint intact and make sure to learn about lead-safe work practices before working on the home. If you think your home has lead-based paints, you can find test kits online. If your home has lead-based paints, it’s best to assure the paint is intact and not chipping, and your child stays away from the paint. It is also important to use an accredited contractor if making renovations on your older home.

Tidy your home: Soil and dust spread lead. Wet-mop floors, wet wipe windowsills, vacuum, dust and wash surfaces often. Take shoes off at the door. Lead present in the soil does not degrade and can last years. Lead-contaminated soil is still a major problem around highways and in some urban settings. Even some soil close to walls of older houses contains lead.

Wash hands and toys: To help reduce hand-to-mouth transfer of contaminated dust or soil, wash your children's hands after outdoor play, before eating and at bedtime. Wash their toys regularly.

Mexican candy: Certain candies from Mexico have been shown to contain lead. Avoid tamarind and chili flavors for kids and pregnant women as they may contain lead.

Don’t bring work home: If you work in painting, remodeling or auto repair, you might be working with lead. Change clothes before going home.

Watch out for jewelry: Some children’s jewelry may contain lead. Wash your child’s hands often and make sure to keep it out of kids’ mouths.

Be careful with home fix-up projects: Especially in older houses, home projects can expose old paint and create toxic dust. Take steps to prevent dust from entering living areas and don’t track in dust. Look up lead-safe work practices or hire a lead-certified contractor.

Eat well: Regular meals and good nutrition might help lower lead absorption. Children especially need enough calcium, vitamin C and iron in their diets to help keep lead from being absorbed.

Lead poisoning is the most common environmental illness in kids in the United States and shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you think your child has been exposed to lead or is showing signs of lead poisoning, seek medical attention immediately.

For more information on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program or if you have further questions, visit the Wisconsin Department of Health Services website