Protect Against Lead
Heather Lee, Educational Resource Development and Support Manager
September 2016; reviewed September 2016 by Teri Burgess-Champoux, Director — Health and Nutrition Special Projects, and Mary Schroeder, Extension Educator — Health and Nutrition.
English | español
Do you know about the dangers of lead exposure? Is your family at risk for lead poisoning? Are you taking adequate steps to protect yourself and your family?
Protect your family from potential sources of lead exposure by following these ten tips.
1. Get to know more about lead.
What is lead? Lead is a heavy metal that is not normally found in our bodies. When lead is in our body — in our blood — it can cause serious, long-term health problems such as:
- Brain, kidney, and liver damage.
- Slowed growth.
- Decreased coordination.
- Aggressive behavior.
- Shortened attention span.
- Lowered intelligence.
- Reading and other learning problems.
ANY amount of lead in the blood is considered dangerous. Too much lead is considered “lead poisoning.”
How do we get exposed to lead? Lead can be digested or breathed in through dust. If a mother has lead in her bloodstream, she can also pass the lead to her baby during pregnancy.
Some of the most common ways that people come into contact with lead is:
- By digesting or breathing in paint dust from homes that were built before 1978. [This is the year that lead was removed from paint in the U.S.]
- By drinking water that flows through lead pipes or pipes held together with lead solder.
- By interacting with soil that has been exposed to lead.
- By coming into contact with objects that are old or created outside of the U.S. that contain lead.
- By working or engaging in a hobby (auto finish, plumbing, etc.), that uses products that contain lead.
If you and your family can avoid these things, and follow the preventive tips described below, your family can minimize exposure to lead.
For more information see Minnesota Department of Health’s Frequently Asked Questions: Lead Poisoning Prevention.
2. Know who is at risk for lead poisoning.
Lead poisoning can happen to anyone exposed to lead. That being said, some groups of people are at greater risk for lead poisoning than others.
- People who live in homes built before 1978 are at risk because chances are their home probably contains lead paint. Even if the paint has been removed, there still may be paint-related dust in the home and soil around the home.
- People who live in older, poorly maintained rental properties are at risk because there’s more likelihood of lead paint-related chips and dust in the home and nearby soil, or lead in their water pipes. Unfortunately, this means that families who are low-income, elderly, and/or immigrants are at greater risk because they are often the ones living in these properties.
- People in urban areas are at greater risk than rural areas, because of the concentration of older (lead-contained) homes and increased auto emissions.
- Children in particular are at risk because of potential lead exposure during pregnancy and while breast feeding and because they are more likely to put non-food, or unclean things in their mouths.
- People who work in places that use lead-related products or come into contact with lead, such as auto finishing, construction, and plumbing, run a bigger risk at digesting or breathing in lead.
To find out more about whether your own children are at risk for lead poisoning, see the Minnesota Department of Health’s Childhood Lead Exposure: Are Your Kids at Risk?
3. Eat healthy foods that protect against lead poisoning.
Eating a healthy diet with lots of iron, vitamin C, and calcium foods can help protect your body against the effects of lead poisoning.
For more information see our related webpage: Fighting Lead with Nutrition.
4. Drink lead-free water.
Lead rarely occurs naturally in water. If lead is found in water, it is usually released from lead-based pipes or lead-based solder that is used to hold together the pipes. While lead pipes fell out favor by the mid-1900’s, lead-based solder was used up until it was banned in 1986. If you live in an older home or your home is connected to an older water main, you may be at risk of lead entering your water. The only way to know for sure is to have your water tested for lead.
To protect you and your family from lead in your drinking water:
- Let the water run for at least 30-60 seconds before using it if the tap has not been turned on for over six hours.
- Use cold water for drinking, making food, and making baby formula — hot water releases more lead from pipes.
- Test your water. Search for Accredited Laboratories through the Minnesota Department of Health’s Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program.
- If your water tests positive for high levels of lead, treat your water. See more at the Minnesota Department of Health’s Point-of-Use Water Treatment Units for Lead Reduction.
For more information see:
5. Maintain your home and take the proper precautions when doing
remodeling in your home.
If you have a lot of dust in your home, you could be at risk for lead poisoning if that dust contains lead paint-related particles. Keep your home clean by following the tips at Maintaining a Healthy Home (also in español: Cómo mantener un hogar saludable). Also make sure that you review the following tips to prevent lead-contaminated soil from entering your home.
Make sure that you do not have peeling paint on your walls or windows, as the paint particles will be more likely to be ingested or breathed in. Repair and repaint surfaces as needed.
If you are doing remodeling in your home, make sure that you protect yourself and your family from possible lead poisoning that could be caused by remodeling activities. Remodeling can stir up dust — if that dust contains lead, that’s a big problem.
For more information, visit:
- Remodeling the Older Home — Minnesota Department of Health
- Homeowner Information: Lead Poisoning Prevention — Minnesota Department of Health
- Lead Safe Housing Equals Lead Free Kids — Emergency, Community, Health and Outreach (ECHO) — This video is also available in other in other languages: English | español | Lus Hmoob | Soomaali | Several other languages
6. Stay mindful when gardening or interacting with soil near busy
Sometimes soil itself is contaminated with lead. There are two major sources of lead contamination in soil.
- Lead is a problem in areas where lead-based paint chips and dust from old buildings have mixed with the soil. The biggest area of concern is usually around the foundations of buildings.
- Lead is also an issue in places that auto emissions regularly fall on the soil, for example within a few feet of busy streets.
Soil-related lead poisoning occurs if you digest or inhale the lead-contaminated soil. To avoid poisoning yourself with lead-contaminated soil:
- Wash any produce that you pick very thoroughly, to make sure you remove any contaminated soil.
- Wash your hands and shake off any soil outside — the goal is to keep the contaminated soil outside!
- Regularly clean the entrance spaces of your home to prevent contaminated soil from spreading throughout your house.
- Watch your children to ensure that they don’t eat dirt or dirty things, and regularly wash their hands and play things.
For more information see Lead in the Home Garden and Urban Soil Environment.
7. Avoid using known lead-based products and don’t allow items in
your home that you know contain lead.
Even though lead-based paint and solder has been banned in the U.S., there are still lots of items that your family may come into contact with still contain lead.
Lead can commonly be found in the following sources.
- Candy, toy jewelry, and toys from other countries — If you can’t be sure, don’t buy it or allow your children to play with it!
- Glazed pottery — Don’t place food or water in any pottery that you know isn’t “food-safe” and lead-free. The same goes for your pets…they can also be contaminated by unsafe food and water dishes.
- Folk medicines from other countries, such as Greta, Azarcon, Ghasard, Ba-baw-san, and Daw Tway — If you aren’t sure something doesn’t contain lead, don’t use it!
- Cosmetics such as koal — If you aren’t sure it doesn’t contain lead, don’t use it!
- Tap water — See the tips to keep your water safe above.
- Soil — See the above tips to keep contaminated soil from getting into your home.
- Artificial turf — Wash your hands and skin if you have contact with artificial turf, and get rid of turf that is falling apart.
- On the skin and clothing of someone who works in an environment or has a hobby with exposure to lead, such as in auto finishing, construction, and plumbing — If this describes someone in your home, take proactive steps to minimize the spread of any lead-related particles. For example, he or she could take a shower and change clothes shortly after arriving home from work. The contaminated clothes could be kept and washed separately, and the changing area should be regularly cleaned (wet-wiped, dusted, etc.) to minimize any lead-related particles that could be ingested or breathed in by others. If possible, showering and changing outside of the home would be best as it would minimize the spread of lead particles within your home.
For more on lead-related products, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Sources of Lead.
8. Engage in healthy habits and activities that minimize children’s lead
As it has been reviewed in the other tips, if children come into contact with lead-contaminated dust, soil, or products, they are at risk for lead poisoning. Here are some things that you can do to help minimize your children’s exposure to lead.
- Make sure that your children’s toys and candy are lead-free.
- Check the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Recent Recalls website for recalls because of lead.
- Wash your children’s toys, pacifiers, and hands often.
- Regularly wet-wipe down your children’s play area, including walls, floors, and window sills.
- Have your children play on grass vs. dirt.
- Take off shoes when entering your home, to minimize the spread of contaminated soil.
- Shower and change clothes before you get home if you have a job or hobby where you come into contact with lead.
- Give children lots of healthy entertainment options so that they will be less likely to play with lead-contaminated surfaces like paint chips and soil.
- Teach your children about the dangers of lead. For younger children, watch Sesame Workshop’s Lead Away! with them. (This video is also available in Spanish: Protégete del plomo.)
And just as you try to keep your kids safe from lead at home and in the community, it’s also important to ensure that your kid’s school is safe from lead. For more information, visit Minnesota Department of Health’s Lead in Schools: Lead Poisoning Prevention.
For more ideas on healthy activities to engage your kids in, see:
9. Know the risks of lead when hunting and fishing.
If you hunt or fish, or eat meat that someone else provided you while they were hunting or fishing, you could be at risk for lead poisoning.
While there have been numerous cases of animals being affected by lead poisoning, humans generally do NOT get lead poisoning by eating lead-poisoned animals. Instead, humans get lead poisoning by ingesting lead fragments that have been left within the meat.
Bullets and fishing tackle historically contained lead. Many brands still contain lead. If the person who prepares the meat does not get out all of the bullet fragments or fish-swallowed fishing tackle, there’s a risk for the person to eat the lead item and get lead poisoning as a result.
If you hunt or fish, pay attention to the bullets and tackle you use and find lead-free alternatives. Likewise, be cautious about the meat you accept from others if you suspect they may use lead bullets or fishing tackle.
For more information, see the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Lead Toxicosis (Lead Poisoning) Disease.
For information on the proposed changes in Minnesota to ban some types of lead ammunition, see the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Non-Toxic Shot on Farmland WMAs.
10. Be proactive and get you and your family tested for lead
Children who were exposed to lead often look healthy vs. “sick.” Remember there is NO safe amount of lead in a person’s blood — any lead in the body can cause serious long-term health problems. If your family is at risk for lead poisoning, or you are unsure if your family has been exposed to lead, get your family tested. A quick visit to the doctor’s office and blood draw is all it takes.
To find out about the blood test and what happens after your children are tested for lead, see the Minnesota Department of Health’s Childhood Lead Exposure: Are Your Kids at Risk?
For more information, contact your doctor.
For More Information
For more information, visit the webpages linked above or the resources under the “Related Resources” section below.
You can also contact your state’s department of health for more information on lead. In Minnesota, contact:
Minnesota Department of Health
Health Risk Intervention Unit
P.O. Box 64975
St. Paul, MN 55164-0975
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015, December 8). Lead: Information for parents.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Know the facts.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.) Sources of lead.
Liukkonen, B. (2009, March 20). Lead and copper in drinking water— University of Minnesota Extension.
Michigan State University Extension. (n.d.). Fight lead with nutrition.
Minnesota Department of Health. (2015, December). Childhood lead exposure: Are your kids at risk?
Minnesota Department of Health. (n.d.) Lead in drinking water.
Missouri Department of Conservation. (n.d.) Lead Toxicosis (Lead Poisoning) Disease.
Rosen, C. J. (n.d.). Lead in the home garden and urban soil environment — University of Minnesota Extension.
Lead: Your Safe Home — University of Minnesota Extension — Review the dangers of lead, and better identify things in your home that may be bad for your health.
Fight Lead Exposure — Michigan State University Extension — Access a range of resources and information that can help you and your family understand the issue of lead exposure.
Lead: Information for Parents — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Learn how to prevent children’s exposure to lead.
Lead — Minnesota Department of Health — Get a range of resources on lead, from educational materials, information for homeowners, information about occupational lead exposure in adults, and more.
Lead — United States Environment Protection Agency — Learn about lead, how to protect your family from lead, and more.
Information About Lead (American Sign Language Video) — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Deaf Wellness Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center — Watch this brief ASL video that discusses lead exposure sources and prevention tips to prevent childhood lead poisoning.