What is Lead Poisoning?

Lead poisoning is a disease caused by swallowing or inhaling lead, even small amounts of chipped lead paint or leaded dust.
Lead is most harmful to young children (under 6 years), because they put everything into their mouths and their bodies absorb lead more easily.
Pregnant women who are exposed to lead are also at risk because the ingested or inhaled lead can cross the placenta and expose the unborn fetus.

What are the effects of lead poisoning?

Since lead is easily absorbed by a child's growing body, lead can interfere with the developing organs and the brain.

Low Levels

  • Slows growth
  • Shortened attention span
  • Reduced IQ
  • Hyperactivity
  • Learning disabilities
  • Hearing impairments

High Levels or repeated exposure

  • Mental retardation
  • Coma
  • Convulsions
  • Death
  • Very high levels are now rare in the United States

Signs of Lead Poisoning

  • Stomach ache and cramps
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Headache
  • Sleep disorders
  • Poor appetite

Since lead poisoning is a result of continued exposure with a gradual accumulation in the child's body, signs and symptoms of lead poisoning often mimic other problems.

What can be done if a child has lead poisoning?

Severely poisoned children are treated with a medication - chelation therapy - which requires hospitalization. This may reduce the level of lead in the body, but may not completely eliminate it.

The most important thing is to prevent exposure or prevent further exposure to lead.

Sources of Lead

Nationwide, lead contaminated paint is the major source of lead poisoning. Chipped or peeling paint is easy for a young child to pick up and put into their mouths. Lead paint has been found on: 

  • Windows and sills
  • Doors, frames and sills
  • Walls and floors Stairs, railings, banisters
  • Woodwork, molding and baseboards
  • Porches and fences
  • Toys and furniture

Soil can be contaminated by chips and dust from outside paint, lead based insecticide, highway pollution
Water may be contaminated by lead water pipes, plumbing fittings, lead solder

Food can be contaminated if:

  • Grown near heavily traveled roads or other sources of lead pollution
  • Stored or baked in poorly glazed potter
  • Prepared by someone with lead dust on their hands
  • Packaged in cans with lead seams
  • Stored in leaded crystal for long periods of time

Air can be contaminated from:

  • Exhaust from vehicles using leaded gas
  • Exhaust at lead smelters

Other Sources of Lead:

  • Dust from renovation
  • Antique pewter
  • Drapery, window, and fishing weights
  • Batter casings
  • Some folk medicines and folk cosmetics
  • Vinyl miniblinds
  • Auto mechanic work
  • Bullet re-loading or target shooting
  • Hobby paint
  • Stained glass

Preventing Exposure

  • Be alert for chipping and flaking paint - inside and outside of the home
  • Watch what you child puts in their mouth - wash child's toys and hands frequently
  • Clean window sills, floors and other dusty surfaces often
  • Provide a well-balanced diet that is high in iron, protein and calcium
  • Use safe interior paints
  • Cover bare soil with grass or shrubs

How do I know if a child has Lead Poisoning?

The only sure way to know if a child has lead poisoning is through a blood test. Children should receive a blood test for lead poisoning twice before they are 2 years old. Lead testing for children (birth -6) is available at the Health Department, at no cost. Please call 573-335-7846 to arrange a time to have your child tested. Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center also provides nursing case management services for children with elevated blood lead levels. When necessary, environmental assessments will be conducted.

Are you or your child at risk for lead poisoning? Answer the following:
Does the child ...

  • Have siblings or playmates who have or did have lead poisoning?
  • Live in or frequently visit a house or daycare built before 1950?
  • Reside in or visit a house built before 1978 with recent or on going renovations or remolding within the last six months?
  • Eat or mouth non-food items - pica? (dirt, starch, clay, ashes, plaster)
  • Play in are soil or reside in a lead smelting area?
  • Receive unusual medicines or folk remedies?


If answer to any of the above, then a lead test should be done.

For more information about lead poisoning, testing, or community presentations please contact Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center at 573-335-7846. You may also contact the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.