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Lead poisoning

Child; lead; poison; poisoning; paint; pencil ;

Lead is a metal which is found in many products and many places where people live and work. If lead gets into the body it can cause many long term health problems. Lead can affect the health of anybody, but some people are more at risk than others.


Effects of lead poisoning

Pregnant women and unborn children, and children under four years are at a high risk if they are exposed to lead.

  • If a woman has a lot of lead in her body, and if she does not have enough calcium, iron or zinc in her diet, she can pass lead to her unborn child, and also pass on lead when she breast feeds. High lead levels in a pregnant woman can lead to poor growth of the unborn baby, and sometimes a miscarriage
  • High levels of lead in children under 4 years have been shown to contribute to learning problems, slowed growth (especially of the brain), poor hearing and some behaviour problems. Young children can be more affected by lead than older children or adults because:
    • Their brain and nervous system are still developing.
    • They absorb (take in) more lead if it is swallowed than adults do.
    • Normal behaviours of young children (crawling, putting their hands and other objects into their mouths) means they are more likely to swallow lead if it is around in dust or in paint in their homes.
    • Children tend to chew on things that are around them, and some children have got high levels of lead from chewing on the bars of old cots which had lead in the paint on them.

In older children and adults, lead can cause many symptoms including muscle pains, fatigue, irritability, abdominal (tummy) pains and if it is at a very high level it can cause paralysis, coma and death.

Some causes of lead poisoning

In nearly all admissions of children to hospital in Australia for treatment of lead poisoning the lead come from dust or paint flakes made during home renovations. Nearly all paint used before 1970 and some paints used after then contained lead. The house paint bought now has only a very small amount of lead or no lead in it.  Some industrial paints still have lead in them and precautions need to be taken to protect the health of workers.

Children living near a lead smelter are at a higher risk of exposure, and in Port Pirie in South Australia this has been a problem.

More information

For more information about lead poisoning, and preventing and treating lead poisoning:

Lead pencils 

  • There is no lead in 'lead' pencils.
  • The part of a 'lead' pencil that causes a mark is made of graphite, which is a form of carbon and does not cause any health problems.
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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

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