What is Lead Poisoning?
Lead is a toxic metal found in our environment. It can be found in dust, air, soil, water, and even inside our homes. While lead is a natural occurring mineral found in the earth's crust, humans are exposed to lead mostly through its use in products and hobbies such as stained-glass making, guns and ammunition, or lead in imported plastics. Historic sources are lead water pipes, lead-based paint, and soils contaminated with leaded gasoline. Lead enters the body by breathing or swallowing lead or lead dust. Lead is poisonous to the human body. Once lead enters the body, it can have negative health impacts on all bodily systems.
Childhood lead poisoning
Lead exposure in American children remains a major health concern, however current US estimates on the number of children with elevated blood lead levels are not known as data are not collected uniformly by states. The CDC defines an elevated blood lead level (elevated BLL) as a single blood lead test (capillary or venous) at or above the CDC blood lead reference value of 3.5 mcg/dL established in 2021 . In New Mexico, a child is considered to have an elevated blood lead level (EBLL) at a concentration of 3.5 mcg/dL or greater.
Lead in the body can harm nearly every organ system, including the nervous, blood, hormonal, kidney, and reproductive systems. Because the bodies of young children absorb lead more readily than adults, children's brains are rapidly developing and establishing critical neural connections in the first three years of life, children are more susceptible to harmful health effects from lead than adults. Additionally, the normal behaviors of very young children, such as crawling, exploring, teething, and putting objects in their mouth, put them at an increased risk for lead exposure. There is no known safe level of exposure to lead. Although children from all social and economic levels can be affected by lead, the poorest children are the most at risk due to a host of socioeconomic factors such as lack of access to high quality foods and living in substandard housing. New Mexico requires all children enrolled in Medicaid be tested for lead exposure at ages 12 months and 24 months.
What are the Health Effects of Lead Poisoning?
For children, especially those under the age of 6, lead can cause serious health problems that may cause lifelong damage. Some of the effects include: brain and nervous system damage, learning difficulties, limited attention span, behavioral problems, hyperactivity, decreased growth, kidney damage, hearing loss, and anemia. If not detected, and at very high blood lead levels, seizures, coma, and death can occur.
Adults can suffer from damage to the nervous, heart, and circulatory systems. An increase in blood pressure can be common. Other effects include decreased kidney function and reproductive problems in both men and women.
Pregnant woman who are lead poisoned can experience high blood pressure, miscarriage or stillborn births, premature births, or babies born at a low birth weight. Lead can be passed to the unborn baby through the placenta and damage the baby's brain and central nervous system. Lead can also be passed to the baby through breast milk.
Symptoms of lead poisoning
For both children and adults, there may be no obvious symptoms of lead poisoning. Symptoms may not appear until blood lead levels are quite high. Often the symptoms people do experience may be mistaken for other illnesses.
- Lack of desire to eat food
- Loss of recently acquired skills (in young children)
- Lack of energy
- Stomach cramps
- Trouble sleeping
The sources of lead in the environment are numerous. Some of the more common sources for exposure in children include:
- Parent's hobbies that include the use of lead (such as making stained glass windows, hunting, fishing, target shooting)
- Parent's work that includes the use of lead, such as recycling or making automotive batteries, painting, radiator repair (take home lead on work clothes or shoes)
- Certain toy jewelry or older toys
- Antiques and antique decorative items
- Lead-based paint found in buildings older than 1978
- Some imported foods or candies (some candies from Mexico have been found to have lead)
- Some imported canned goods due to the lead soldering
- Food and liquids stored in lead crystal or lead-glazed pottery or porcelain
- Dust created during the remodeling of older homes. Lead can also contaminate the soil outside the home
- Folk medicines and remedies (azarcon and greta, which are used for upset stomach or indigestion; pay-loo-ah, which is used for rash or fever; kohl or alkohl, which is used as eye cosmetic, to treat skin infections, or as umbilical stump remedy).
Lead in drinking water
Lead being introduced into water from the disruption of lead containing service lines, such as a meter installation, is mostly associated with older water systems of which there are few in New Mexico. Lead is more likely to be a concern with water systems than in private wells.
- Testing the water is the only way to know if lead is present.
- Low pH (pH below 6.5) can cause corrosion of plumbing components and dissolve metals like lead, copper and zinc into the water.
- Household plumbing fixtures, welding solder, and pipe fittings made prior to 1986 may contain lead. Some plumbing components manufactured prior to 2014 may contain up to 8% lead.
- To remove lead, the USEPA recommends using a NSF/ANSI Standard 53 certified filter.
Testing for lead in private well water is recommended:
- At least once, and again after any disturbance to the well such as maintenance.
- If pregnant women or children under age 6 live in the house.
- If lead pipes or fixtures are in the home or suspected to be in the home.
- After water treatment is installed.
- The recommend action Level for lead in drinking water is 0.015 milligrams per Liter (mg/L).
To reduce lead in water:
- Flush pipes for two minutes if the water hasn't been used for six hours or more.
- The US Environmental Protection Agency provides guidance to help consumers find certified lead reducing point of use (at the sink) filters.
Lead Poisoning Prevention Tips
Protect yourself and your family from lead exposure by:
- Removing shoes before going inside your home to avoid tracking in lead from soil. Help your family get into the habit of taking their shoes off when they come inside the house.
- Showering and changing clothes after finishing the task if you remodel buildings built before 1978 or if your work or hobbies involve working with lead-based products. Don't launder work clothes with the rest of your family's laundry.
- Wash your hands frequently if you work with lead. Don't smoke or eat while working with lead.
- Check the Consumer Product Safety Commission website for recalls on products that may contain lead, especially toys and children's clothing (see link in "Downloads and Resources" below.
- Avoid using home remedies and cosmetics that may contain lead.
- Check your home for items that may potentially contain lead such as jewelry, toys, and older painted furniture that may be chipping.
- Make sure children eat healthy and nutritious meals as recommended by the National Dietary Guidelines, because children with good diets absorb less lead. A diet high in vitamin C, iron, and calcium can help reduce lead absorption.
If you think that your child has been exposed to lead
Ask a doctor to test your child for lead. Both Federal and State Medicaid regulations require that all children enrolled in Medicaid be tested at 12 months and again at 24 months of age. Children between the ages of 36 months and 72 months of age must receive a screening blood lead test if they have not been previously screened for lead poisoning. No state is exempt from this requirement.
Contact the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at NMDOH for more information (see "Downloads and Resources" below).
Notifiable Diseases or Conditions in New Mexico (N.M.A.C 188.8.131.52)
All levels of lead in blood are reportable to the New Mexico Department of Health. Report to Epidemiology and Response Division, NM Department of Health, P.O. Box 26110, Santa Fe, NM 87502-6110; or call 505-827-0006.