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Lead and Lead Poisoning

Information about lead poisoning, common sources of lead, and tips to protect against lead exposure.

Lead is a naturally occurring heavy metal in many manmade products. The use of lead has decreased over the years, but there are still lead-containing products and lead-contaminated areas in our environment.

Lead poisoning and your health

Lead poisoning happens when too much lead builds up in the body. Children and adults can get lead poisoning by swallowing, inhaling or touching products that contain lead. Lead is especially toxic to young children and pregnant women because it harms the developing brain. Lead poisoning may not cause symptoms, and many children may appear healthy. Exposure to lead can cause:

  • Damage to the brain and nervous system
  • Slowed growth
  • Behavior and learning problems
  • Impaired speech and language
  • Hearing damage
  • Kidney and liver damage

Getting tested

Most children who have lead poisoning do not look or act sick. A blood lead test is the only way to determine if someone has lead poisoning. Children and pregnant women who have been exposed to lead should contact their health care provider to be tested for lead. There is no safe level of lead in blood. Prevention is key to staying healthy. If you do not have a health care provider, call the Washington County Health Care Resource Line at 503-846-8851.

If you or your child has an elevated blood lead level it's important to eliminate or reduce your exposure to possible sources. Keep in mind that you may have been exposed through several sources.

Sources of lead

Lead in spices and candy

In recent years, lead has been found in spices purchased abroad in South Asian countries, Georgia and Morocco. Turmeric purchased in India has been linked to lead poisoning cases locally. To decrease your risk of lead exposure, buy your spices in the U.S. from known brands. If you have concerns, you can send a sample of turmeric to a food testing laboratory to test for lead. Call the Leadline at 503-988-4000 for testing information.

Lead has been found in candy imported from Mexico. Laboratory testing also found lead in the wrappers and the clay pots that some candy comes in. Candy with chili powder and tamarind were most often contaminated with lead.

Lead in cosmetics and traditional colored powders

High lead levels have also been found in sindoor and kumkum, a powder with a red or orange-red color used in South Asian and Hindu traditions. Brands sold in the U.S. can be contaminated with lead. If you use these products, always wash your hands after applying them and keep them away from children. Avoid using them if you are pregnant.

Certain cosmetics, especially those from the Middle East, Africa, India and Asia, may contain high levels of lead. Cosmetics known to often contain lead are kohl, surma, kajal, al-kahal, tiro, tozali and kwalli. These are commonly used as eyeliner but are sometimes also used for medicinal or cultural purposes. Avoid using these products, especially on children and pregnant women.

Lead in ceramics

Imported, old or handmade ceramic dishes and pottery may have lead in the glaze. You cannot tell by looking at a dish if it contains lead. The only way to know for sure is to have it tested. If you don’t know if a dish contains lead, you should not use it to store, cook or serve food or beverages. If any tableware begins to show a dusty or chalky gray residue after washing, stop using it. Buy dishes with labels that say the item is lead-free or suitable for food use.

Lead paint

If your home was built before 1978, lead-based paint may have been used inside and outside your home. The older the home, the more likely it is that lead-based paint was used. Chipping or peeling lead paint is a common source of lead dust, which can gather in carpets, on floors, on toys and other objects. Lead dust can also be in the soil. Children are more at risk for exposure to lead dust because they put their hands and objects in their mouths a lot. Home renovations may cause lead dust in your home, so be sure to use lead-safe work practices.

Lead in plumbing fixtures

Most sources of drinking water have no lead or very low levels of lead. Lead gets into drinking water after the water leaves the local well or treatment plant. Some older plumbing fixtures may contain lead or may be connected to pipes using lead solder. Over time, this lead can slowly leak into the water moving through the pipes. Lead solder is common in homes that were built or had plumbing redone between 1970 and 1985.

Lead exposure from living abroad

Risk for lead exposure varies by country. Some countries use more lead in their manufacturing processes and have fewer regulations on lead emissions. Refugee children from other countries have higher blood lead levels than children born in the U.S. If your child recently immigrated, you should have them tested for lead.

See Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention: Risk Factors and Refugees and Immigrants | CDC

Other sources of lead

Adults and children can also be exposed to lead through hobbies, jobs or by using products containing lead. Some of these include:

  • Leaded glass, leaded crystal, brassware or pewter used for food or drink
  • Stained glass

Reducing lead exposure

Follow these tips to protect yourself and your children from lead exposure:

  • Keep children away from items that might contain lead (see lists above).
  • Feed children a well-balanced diet, rich in iron and calcium.
  • Check for recalls on products and foods through the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
  • Wash hands often, especially before meals and after playing outside.
  • Inspect paint in your home for chipping, peeling or deterioration.
  • Use lead-safe practices or hire a professional for renovations, paint removal and repairs.
  • Frequently wet-wipe floors, window sills and other surfaces that may contain lead dust.
  • Wash toys, stuffed animals, bottles and pacifiers to remove lead dust.
  • Clean or remove shoes before entering the home.
  • Have children play on grass instead of bare soil.

Water testing and schools

State health and education officials developed a database of water test results for lead in Oregon schools. The tool provides an interactive map and displays results for individual school buildings across the state.

Additional resources