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Environmental Services

Learn About Lead and Its Dangers

What is Lead

Lead (chemical symbol Pb) is a heavy, toxic, poisonous chemical element. It is a soft, malleable metal that is bluish-gray in color.

History of Lead Knowledge and Use

  • Negative effects of lead were recognized by Ben Franklin in 1786; however, lead use and occupational exposures accelerated during the 1800s.
  • The first time a case of lead paint poisoning was diagnosed was in Australia, in 1895.
  • Residential lead-based paint was sold in the United States until 1978. More than 38 million U.S. homes still contain lead-based paint.
  • Why was lead added to paint? Better pigmentation, durability and corrosion resistance.

Lead Poisoning

Childhood lead poisoning is an environmental health problem that causes adverse effects on children's development and later in adulthood. In San Diego County, between 2017 and 2021, 231 children under the age of six received services from the San Diego County Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (CLPPP) due to lead poisoning.

How are we exposed to lead-based paint?

  • The biggest source of lead exposure is from deteriorating lead-based paint on homes built before 1978.
  • Twenty-eight percent of lead poisoned people in San Diego live in homes in which lead-based paint or contaminated dust is a possible source.
  • Normal wear and tear produces lead dust, the most common source of lead poisoning.
  • Deteriorating paint produces dust and flakes.
  • Disturbing intact lead-based paint during remodeling, renovation and maintenance can create a lead hazard.
  • Other sources of lead can sometimes include: pottery used for food, home remedies, candy, water, toys, soil, toy jewelry, decorative goods, hobbies and occupational exposures.
Photo of Cracked Paint
Photo of Candy
Photo of Pottery

How does lead poison us?

  • Swallowing lead dust or flakes. This is especially true for young children who crawl on the floor and put their hands and toys in their mouths.
  • Breathing in lead dust during maintenance or renovation activities that disturb old paint.
  • Lead can harm unborn children when lead from the mother’s blood passes to her unborn child.

How do we know if we have been exposed to lead?

The only sure way to know if you have been exposed to lead is to have a blood-lead test. Doctors do not normally perform this test. You must ask for it.

Children should be tested at 1 and 2 years of age, and afterwards as recommended by the child’s physician.

Photo of Child Being Examined by Doctor

Usually there are NO obvious symptoms, but symptoms of lead poisoning frequently include:

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Headache
  • Constipation
  • Stomach ache
  • Cramps
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Behavior problems

What are the health effects of lead in our bodies?

  • Loss of IQ
  • Learning difficulties
  • Behavior problems
  • Brain and nerve damage
  • Stillbirth and miscarriage
  • Premature birth
  • Low birth weight

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses a blood lead reference value (BLRV) of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dl) to identify children with blood lead levels that are higher than most children’s levels.