Lead poisoning

Too much exposure to lead can cause health problems or lead poisoning. It can takes months or years to develop lead poisoning if you are exposed to a small amount. A lot of lead exposure can quickly lead to more serious lead poisoning.

Symptoms of lead poisoning

The early stages of lead poisoning are not specific. They can affect your nervous and cause symptoms such as:

  • mood changes such as depression or irritability
  • memory issues
  • sleep issues
  • headaches
  • tingling and numbness in fingers and hands.

Lead can also affect your stomach and intestinal symptoms. This can cause:

  • lack of appetite
  • nausea
  • runny poos (diarrhoea)
  • dry poos or difficulty pooing (constipation)
  • stomach pains
  • weight loss.

In later stages, lead poisoning can affect your blood, kidneys, bones, heart or reproductive systems .

In extreme cases lead poisoning can cause death.

Symptoms in tamariki

Low amounts of lead exposure does not cause obvious symptoms. But if untreated, it can affect the developing brain of tamariki and their development.

High levels of lead exposure can cause symptoms such as:

  • vomiting
  • stomach pains
  • difficulty sleeping
  • constipation
  • loss of appetite.

If untreated, very high blood lead levels can cause more serious problems, and lead to brain damage or even death.

How you get exposed to lead

Lead is a naturally occuring metal that may be found in the home or work environment. Lead gets into your body through food, water and air. You either eat or drink it, or breathe in dust particles. Once in the body, lead circulates in the blood and can be stored in the bones.

Your body does not absorb most lead.Some people will develop health problems or lead poisoning if they are exposed to too much lead over time.

Lead paint on old houses

Most lead exposure comes from lead-based paint on houses built before about 1970, especially those before 1945.

The old paint might still be in place, painted over or flaking off. When you remove old paint or it flakes off it can get into dust or soil.

Drinking water

Lead can get into drinking water if lead pipes or tap fittings are breaking down. The amount of lead in the water depends on:

  • how corrosive the water is
  • what the pipes or fittings are made from
  • the amount of time the water is in contact with the pipe or fittings.

Some types of work

If you work in jobs such as auto repair, mining, pipe fitting, battery manufacturing, painting or construction you may be exposed to lead. This means you can also bring it home on the clothes you work in.

Pēpi and tamariki exposure

Infants and preschool tamariki often put objects or their hands in their mouth. They may put lead-contaminated dust, soil or objects in their mouth from this.

Paint on old cots or old toys, such as rocking horses or blocks, could also be lead-based.

Young tamariki absorb more lead than older tamariki and adults.

Unborn pēpi (babies)

Lead can be carried to your pēpi during pregnancy through your blood. If you are exposed to lead during pregnancy it may affect your pēpi while it is still forming.

Exposure to lead can cause premature birth or low birth weight as well as later problems with development.

Diagnosing lead poisoning

Symptoms of lead poisoning are similar to many other health conditions. If you or your tamariki have any of these symptoms and think you may have had lead exposure, visit a healthcare provider.

Your healthcare provider can do a blood test to measure the amount of lead in your blood. This will be from a finger prick or from a vein.

There is no safe blood level of lead. Depending on the results of the test, your healthcare provider will recommend future testing to check your levels. If your levels are very high they might suggest treatment.

Treatment for lead poisoning

For low-level exposure

The first step of treating lead poisoning is to remove the source of the lead.

For people with relatively low lead levels, avoiding exposure to lead might be enough to reduce blood lead levels.

If you cannot remove lead from your environment, you might be able to reduce the chances of it causing issues. For example, if there is lead in your house it might be better to paint over lead paint rather than remove it.

Your local health department can give you information on ways find lead and reduce exposure.

For high-level exposure

For more severe cases of lead poisoning, your healthcare provider might recommend chelation therapy.

This is when you take a medicine by mouth. The medicine binds with the lead so that your body can wee it out.

Some adults with very high levels of lead, or tamariki who cannot tolerate the medicine may be treated with a different chemical given by injection.

Preventing lead poisoning

There are a few ways you can protect yourself and your whānau from exposure to lead.

  • Avoid known sources of lead.
  • Eat iron and calcium rich food such as meat, beans, legumes, milk, cheese or yogurt. These foods help absorb lead.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Wash dummies and toys frequently, especially those used outside.
  • Wet-dust floors, ledges, window sills and other flat surfaces at least once a week.
  • Take care renovating or repainting old homes. Assume the paint is lead-based if the house was built or painted before 1970. Avoid sanding.
  • Avoid drinking water that contains lead. Run the tap for a few seconds before using water. Run taps each morning for 30 seconds to clear water that has been sitting in pipes overnight.

If you collect a rainwater supply to drink, check your roof and guttering for materials that may contain metals that may have lead — for example, lead flashing, lead-headed nails, and lead paint. Replace these if you find them.

Related websites

WorkSafe NZ

Guidelines for the management of lead-based paint — recommended working practises and information about lead poisoning and the impact of lead-based materials in the environment.

Environmental Health Intelligence New Zealand

EHINZ (part of Massey University) provide hazardous substances factsheets, including regular reports on lead notifications.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Find out about lead poisoning in tamariki on the CDC website. The CDC is the United States' government science-based, data-driven, service organization that protects the public’s health.

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