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What is lead?
Lead is a heavy, soft metal that occurs naturally in the earth. It is toxic
to humans, and can get into our bodies when we breathe or swallow something that
has lead in it or on it. Young children are most vulnerable to the effects of lead.
Lead was once used in products found in and around homes such as paints, gasoline
and lead solder used for plumbing and food cans. It is still used to make batteries,
ammunition, devices to shield X-rays and some metal pipes. Lead is released into
the environment when burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas and
during some mining and manufacturing activities.
Why is lead a concern?
Lead poisoning is entirely preventable, but in Colorado approximately 50-60 children
are confirmed to have lead poisoning each year. Other children may have
an elevated blood lead screening test but do not return for a retest so this elevation
cannot be confirmed.
Lead poisoning often goes unrecognized because it might not cause any obvious signs
or symptoms. But lead poisoning can cause long-term health problems, including learning
disabilities, behavioral problems, and, at very high levels, seizures, coma and
Can lead make me sick?
No level of lead in the body is considered safe.
The health effects of lead
depend on how much lead a person has been exposed to, how often the person is exposed
(such as daily or weekly, for weeks or years) and the age of the person. Young children
below the age of 3 are at the greatest risk because their brains are developing
rapidly and they are crawling, teething and putting objects in their mouths. These
activities put them at increased risk of coming into contact with lead in their
environment just at the time the growing brain is most vulnerable to the harmful
effects of lead exposure.
Lead poisoning is usually due to repeated exposure to small amounts of lead over
time, though lead poisoning can occur if a single lead-containing object, such as
a trinket, is swallowed. Lead affects almost every system in the body, and is particularly
harmful to the
central nervous system
Lead exposure can harm young children and babies even before they are born.
If not detected early, high levels of lead in children can cause:
- Damage to the brain and nervous system
- Speech, language, behavior and learning problems
- Slowed growth
- Hearing problems
- Digestive problems, loss of appetite
Lead poisoning can have long-term health effects, even into adulthood. If you suspect
that you or your child may be exposed to lead, consult your health care provider.
low-cost health clinics
also provide lead testing.
Who is at risk?
Children are at greater risk of lead poisoning if they:
- live in poverty
- live in or regularly visit a home built before 1978 that is in poor condition (lead-based
paint was used in homes before 1978)
- live in or regularly visit a home built before 1978, that is being renovated, or
has been worked on in the past without proper safety precautions
- travel in and out of the United States often
- are exposed to products from countries that do not regulate lead as strictly as
it is regulated in the United States (these products often include spices, candies,
herbal remedies, cosmetics and toys)
- have poor nutrition (children are more likely to absorb lead if they are lacking
certain nutrients in their diet)
- have frequent contact with an adult who has a job or a hobby that involves lead
Pregnant women should also be careful to avoid lead exposure because it can harm
babies before they are born.
Who should be tested
The only way to know if a child has lead poisoning is to have the child tested for
lead, because often no symptoms are visible.
Lead poisoning is diagnosed
using a blood test that measures how much lead is in a person’s blood. All children
with increased risk of lead exposure should be tested.
Colorado does not recommend
for all young children. Instead Colorado recommends
for blood lead testing. Colorado guidelines currently recommend that all low-income
children in Colorado should be tested for lead at 12 months and 24 months of age,
using either a capillary or venous blood specimen. See
Colorado’s lead screening recommendations
for further guidance on who should be tested.
It is important to test children when they are young so they can get the appropriate treatment if they have been exposed to lead.
Children under the age of three are at greatest risk from lead poisoning. Health care providers can provide blood
lead testing. Some
low-cost health clinics
also provide lead testing. If a child has a blood lead level of
or higher, then the child’s family works with a health care provider to get the medical care needed
and make the necessary changes to the child’s environment to prevent further lead exposure.
Guidelines for childhood blood lead case management
are provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
You can learn more about lead testing in Colorado by reading the
for lead testing from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and lead
from the Colorado Board of Health.
How can risk be reduced?
Lead poisoning is a preventable disease. There are many things you can do to protect
yourself and your family from exposure to lead.
If you live in a house or apartment that was built before 1978, or frequently visit
a house that was built before 1978 (for example, grandparents, in-home day care),
there are things you can do right away to protect young children from exposure to
Protect your family when you do home improvements.
- Make sure children cannot get to peeling paint or chewable surfaces covered with
lead-based paint, such as window sills.
- If you see any peeling paint chips or dust, clean it up immediately. If you rent,
notify your landlord of peeling or chipping paint.
- Wipe down floors and other household surfaces with a damp cloth or mop at least
once a week to reduce possible exposure to lead dust. Thoroughly rinse cloths and
mops when you are done.
- Regularly wash children’s hands and toys to remove dust and dirt. Household dust
and outdoor dirt can both contain lead.
Learn how with this fact sheet from the Colorado Lead Coalition
Use only cold water from the tap for cooking, drinking, and mixing baby formula.
Most lead in household tap water usually comes from lead in the piping of the house,
not from the water supply. Hot water is more likely to pick up lead from water pipes.
Avoid regularly using products from countries that do not have lead regulations
as strict as those in the United States.
Some imported food products, such as spices and candies, have been associated with
elevated levels of blood lead in children in Colorado. Some toys have been found
to have levels of lead that can put a child at risk if the child chews on the toy.
These toys are often imported from other countries. Learn more about keeping kids safe from toys contaminated with lead
Avoid traditional remedies that contain lead.
Lead has been found in some traditional (folk) medicines used by East Indian, Indian,
Middle Eastern, West Asian, and Hispanic cultures. Azarcon and Greta are traditional
Hispanic remedies that are sometimes given to teething babies, and are also used
to treat upset stomach. Ba-baw-san is a Chinese herbal remedy used to treat colic
pain or to pacify young children. It also contains lead. Learn more about lead in traditional medicines
from the Centers for Disease
Take precautions to protect yourself and your family if you have a job or a hobby
that involves lead.
Shower and change your clothes and shoes after finishing an activity that involves
working with lead, such as using a firing range or working with stained glass. Children
can be exposed to lead from these activities when lead dust is brought into the
house. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
has more information on how to protect yourself and your family if you work with
How is lead poisoning
For children, an elevated blood lead test result has been defined by the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter
of blood (10 µg/dL) or higher since 1991. Childhood blood lead data available on
this website are currently limited to display of
elevated results at or above 10 µg/dL.
Recently CDC recommended adopting
a new reference level of 5 µg/dL
and identifies this as the level at which steps
should be taken to reduce lead exposure in children under age 6. CDC and state EPHT
partners are working to determine how best to compile, display and describe childhood
blood lead levels from 5 to 10 µg/dL. Once consistent guidelines are developed,
Colorado will update the available data to display these results on the Tracking
web site. COEPHT is also working to compile and display the number of
screening tests by county.
Clinical laboratories are required to report all blood lead test results for children
18 years of age and younger. For people older than 18, laboratories are required
to report test results if they find that the person has an elevated level of lead
in their blood. Elevated blood lead for someone over the age of 18 is defined as
10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (10 µg/dL) or higher. These blood lead
test results must be reported to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
as specified in the Colorado Board of Health Regulations (6 CCR 1009-7)
Test results are received daily, and elevated results from children are reported
to local health agencies on a weekly basis. Local health agencies follow up on reports
of elevated lead test results as resources allow. This may include an investigation
to determine the source of lead exposure and to recommend actions for stopping the
The Tracking program analyzes, summarizes and reports the results of blood lead
testing from children less than six years of age. These yearly data are available
by county. These data do not tell us how Colorado compares to other states because
childhood blood lead testing practices vary between states. Some states recommend
while others, including Colorado, recommend