Lead is a highly toxic metal. If breathed or swallowed it can build up in a person's blood, bones, muscles and fat. Even a single, very high exposure to lead can cause lead poisoning, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In adults, high lead levels can increase the risk of:
Lead is even more dangerous to children than to adults, according to the EPA. That's because children's bodies are growing quickly and are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead.
Even children who seem healthy can have harmful levels of lead in their bodies. This can cause such problems as:
In severe cases, lead can even cause seizures and death.
Here are some of the places lead can be found, according to the EPA:
Paint. Lead-based paint was banned from housing in 1978, but it's still present in many homes built before then.
Paint that contains lead is especially dangerous if it is:
Soil. Lead-based paint on the exterior of a home can shed into the soil. Other sources, such as past use of leaded gas in cars, can contaminate the soil as well. This soil can get tracked into the house on shoes.
Dust. Dust can collect lead from deteriorating lead-based paint or from soil that is tracked into the home. Dust that has settled can float into the air when people vacuum, sweep or walk through it.
Drinking water. Some residential plumbing contains lead, which can enter the water.
Jobs and hobbies. People who work with lead or use products that contain lead for hobbies such as pottery, stained glass or refinishing furniture can bring the substance home on their hands or clothes.
If you suspect that your home has high levels of lead, the EPA recommends getting your children and home tested.
A simple blood test can detect high levels of lead. Consult your child's doctor to find out more.
It's especially important to get your home tested if you're planning to remodel, if it is in poor condition or if it was built before 1978. For a list of qualified professionals in your area, check with the National Lead Information Center at 800.424.LEAD (800.424.5323) or go to epa.gov/lead/forms/lead-hotline-national-lead-information-center.
The EPA also recommends these safety steps:
Once and for all
To permanently remove lead hazards, you must hire a certified lead "abatement" contractor. Just painting over the hazard with regular paint is not enough. Always hire a person with special training in correcting lead problems.