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Frequently Asked Questions about Lead

What is Lead?
Lead is a soft metal that is resistant to corrosion. It has been used by man since the earliest civilizations.

How is lead used?
Lead is a versatile ingredient used in many products such as, paints, glass and crystal, ceramic glazes, ammunition, brass and pewter, gasoline, vinyl or plastic, waterlines and pipes. Lead paint is very durable and was therefore used on many buildings. It is still used on boats, ships, bridges, fire hydrants, and similar commercial areas.

Why is lead hazardous?
Lead is toxic to humans. At high levels, lead can cause seizures, coma and death. At lower levels, it can cause damage to your internal organs, reproductive system, and nervous system. Even at really low levels, lead can cause permanent learning disabilities and behavioral problems in children.

What is lead poisoning?
Lead poisoning occurs when lead accumulates in the body, either by gradual accumulation from repeated exposure or by exposure to a large source. Lead travels through the bloodstream and can damage any organs receiving blood. Lead can also be absorbed in bone, where it can stay for 30 years or more. When the body is under stress or is malnourished, some of the lead can leave the bone and enter the bloodstream where it can begin to cause damage again.

Lead poisoning is usually determined by a blood test. Results are measured in micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL). The ideal blood lead level would be zero for any individual, but the national average is about 2mcg/dL. Levels at or above 5mcg/dL are a concern.

How does lead poisoning occur?
Lead is absorbed by the body primarily through the lungs and stomach. Eating objects that contain lead (paint chips, soil, some imported candies or home remedies), or breathing lead dust are common ways to get poisoned. Small children frequently put objects or their hands in their mouth and therefore are at higher risk for becoming poisoned if these objects contain lead or are contaminated with lead dust.

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?
At low levels, there are no observable symptoms. At higher levels, the following may be observed:

• Fatigue
• Depression
• Heart failure
• Abdominal pain
• Gout
• Kidney failure
• High blood pressure
• Wrist or foot weakness
• Reproductive problems
• Anemia
• Decreased appetite
• Stomach ache
• Sleeplessness
• Learning problems
• Constipation
• Vomiting
• Diarrhea
• Anemia

How can lead poisoning be treated?
At elevated blood lead levels, chemical treatment can help remove the lead from a person’s blood. At lower levels, removing the sources of lead exposure and ensuring proper nutrition will allow the body to gradually expel the lead. Lead in blood is either absorbed by soft tissue and bones or is eliminated through feces and urine. Foods rich in calcium, iron and vitamin C can help reduce the amount of lead the body absorbs.

Who is at risk for lead poisoning?
Lead is most harmful to children under age six because it is easily absorbed into their growing bodies and interferes with the developing brain and other organs and systems. Pregnant women and women of child-bearing age are also at increased risk, because lead ingested by the mother can cross the placenta and affect the unborn fetus.

What is being done to protect the public from lead poisoning?
Many laws have been passed to reduce the public’s exposure to lead. Most focus on reducing or eliminating lead from consumer products (paint, candy, toys, jewelry, cosmetics, food, drugs, furniture, dishware, etc.), especially those designed for children. Additional laws are in place to prevent lead that exists in our homes from becoming a hazard.

In Los Angeles County, Environmental Health is working to educate property owners, businesses, community groups, other governmental agencies, and the public about the dangers of lead.

What can I do to protect myself or my family?

  1. Have your child tested for lead.
  2. In homes built before 1978:
    • Make sure that painted surfaces are kept in good condition. Don’t let paint start to peel or deteriorate
    • Clean hard floors with a wet mop
    • Wipe window sills, counters and other horizontal surfaces with a wet cloth – don’t stir up dust
    • Use a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) vacuum to clean carpets. Other vacuums will spread any lead dust around the house
    • Cover bare soil areas with grass, concrete, or bark
    • Make sure that any repairs that disturb painted surfaces are done using safe work practices (dust-free and contained)
  3. Run the faucet for at least 30 seconds before using the tap water whenever the water may have been standing for a long period.
  4. Use cold water for drinking, cooking and making infant formula because it carries less lead. (Boiling the water concentrates the lead.)
  5. Check pottery, china and leaded glassware for lead content.

How do I get my children tested for lead?
Contact your medical provider to request a blood test specifically for lead levels.

Is treatment available for lead poisoning?
Except for severely poisoned children, there is no medical treatment for this disease. While drug therapy can reduce high levels of lead in the body, it does not undo the harm caused to developing organs and systems.

What should I do if I suspect that there is lead in my home?
Have your home checked by a qualified inspector. Several kits that test for the presence of lead in various sources are now available. Homes built before 1978 may contain lead. The older the home, the more likely it is to have lead. Keep painted surfaces in good repair. Do not dry sand or scrape painted surfaces as this creates hazardous lead dust.

Can I remove lead paint from my home by myself?
Lead paint removal should be done only by trained, certified professionals who are experienced in working with hazardous materials and special equipment.

For more information, call 1-800-LA-4-LEAD (5323).

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Director of Environmental Health
Liza Frias
Public Health has made reasonable efforts to provide accurate translation. However, no computerized translation is perfect and is not intended to replace traditional translation methods. If questions arise concerning the accuracy of the information, please refer to the English edition of the website, which is the official version.
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