Dealing with a common poison

by Catherine Woulfe / 02 March, 2014
How to minimise the health risks from exposure to lead.


When lead is ingested or inhaled, it travels to the bloodstream and accumulates in the bones. It is then re-released into the system, meaning a child or adult exposed to too much lead may be re-exposed long after the original exposure.


• Can damage the brain, affect fertility, increase the risk of miscarriage or stillbirth, and raise blood pressure. In pregnant women, lead can cross the placenta and damage the fetus. Also linked to anaemia, seizures, hearing loss, nausea, fatigue.
• Possible symptoms: headaches, irritability, aggressive behaviour, insomnia, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, constipation, anaemia.



• Lead-based paint peeling off or being unsafely removed from your house or a neighbour’s. Previous shoddy renovations.
• Soil and house dust.
• Food (lead particles can coat the skin of vegetables; wash before eating).
• Lead-painted toys or furniture, some Ayurvedic and Chinese herbal medicines.
• Pica: children eating dirt or paint.
• Hobbies: particularly indoor shooting and leadlighting.
• Drinking water from lead pipes.


• Can be permanent and irreversible.
• Low levels are often undetected: no obvious symptoms. Child might be fatigued, irritable, losing weight, pale or weak.
• Can lead to learning disabilities, diminished IQ, behavioural problems, malformed bones, organ damage, hearing problems, slow growth.
• Very high levels can cause seizures, coma, death.


• Take your child to a GP. Ask for a blood test if there is concern about lead exposure. Make sure siblings are tested if high levels are found.
• Frequently wash your child’s hands, toys, dummies.
• Test house dust and soil, as well as paint (on furniture and house surfaces).
• Never dry-sand lead paint or acrylic that may have lead paint underneath.
• Paint lead surfaces with acrylic. Discard contaminated carpets. Replace or cover contaminated soil.
• If working with lead, wash clothes separately and shower before cuddling kids.

To read about stunning links between lead exposure and crime, see this week's Listener cover story: The dreaded leadSubscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content

Rick Nevin’s academic papers showing correlations with lead exposure: click here.

Guidelines on how to deal with lead paint when renovating: click here.

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