Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson

Lead exposure: Why it's dangerous to you and your family

8/31/2020 by Drs. Yasaman Fatemi and Robert M. Jacobson


Up until the 1970s, lead was used in paint, as an additive in gasoline, in water pipes and many other products, so it was found in homes, the air, water and soil. Children were often poisoned by eating chips of lead-based paint peeled from windowsills and walls or by chewing on painted toys. In Flint, it was caused by lead leaching from corroded water pipes. 

Recognizing the health impact of lead, public health agencies took measures to have it removed from gasoline and paint. However, many older homes still may have lead-based paint inside and out, creating an exposure risk from chips and dust. 

The U.S. banned lead-based paint in 1978. Homes built before 1978 likely contain lead-based paint. Lead from the paint can contaminate house dust and the grounds around the home as the paint chips, cracks, and wears. Home renovations may inadvertently increase lead exposure from demolition and sanding. Painted wooden windows might release lead when opening and closing causes the painted surfaces to rub and wear.

While lead exposure is less of a concern today, it's still a concern, especially for older infants and toddlers. Why? Because at these ages, they tend to put things in their mouth. Lead poisoning is caused when lead builds up in the body. Even small amounts can cause serious health problems, including:

  • Non-reversible cognitive issues, such as, lower IQ and poorer school performance, which will affect them throughout their lifetime.
  • Slower growth and physical development
  • Damage to the kidneys and nervous system in both children and adults
  • Seizures and unconsciousness from particularly high levels

The main way you can help protect you and your family is to:

  • Reduce exposure to lead-based paint chips.
  • Wash hands and toys to reduce hand-to-mouth transfer of contaminated dust or soil from chips that may have fallen onto the ground around your home. 
  • Keep up on repairs around your home. 
  • Undertake lead-abatement measures, if necessary. 
  • Eat a healthy diet. Good nutrition and regular meals can help lower lead absorption. 

Also, see your health care provider regularly, especially if your child is under age two. If you're concerned about lead exposure, please tell your care team, so that your child can be screened. Your home also can be checked for lead, and if risk levels are high, we can refer you to the public health department for lead abatement and other programs. 

Dr. Yasaman Fatemi completed her medical schooling and pediatric residency here at Mayo Clinic, served as that residency’s chief resident, and now is a fellow at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in Pediatric Infectious Diseases. 

Dr. Robert M. Jacobson is a pediatrician in Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson's Division of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (CPAM) and medical director of the Primary Care in Southeast Minnesota Immunization Program.