Healthy Homes - Lead


What is lead poisoning?

Lead affects the central nervous system and can interfere with the production of hemoglobin (which is needed to carry oxygen to cells) and with the body’s ability to use calcium.  There is also evidence that childhood exposure to lead can cause long-term harm. 

Exposure to lead can seriously harm a child’s health and cause well-documented adverse effects such as:

Damage to the brain and nervous system
Slowed growth and development
Learning and behavior problems
Hearing and speech problems

This can cause:

Lower IQ
Decreased ability to pay attention
Underperformance in school

Seizures, coma and even death can occur from very high levels of lead.

Who is at risk of lead poisoning?

Individuals of all ages can be affected by lead poisoning; however, it is a more serious threat for children.

What causes lead poisoning?

Several things in and around the home can cause lead poisoning:

Lead-based paint – A common source of lead exposure in young children is deteriorating paint found in older homes and buildings.

Soil – Soil can be contaminated by exterior lead paint chips and dust, past use of lead-based insect sprays, or remodeling projects.  This contaminated soil may be tracked inside on shoes and clothing.

Air – Air may be contaminated from dust caused by sanding, scraping, or burning during removal of lead based paint.  Lead contamination may also occur from living near a manufacturing plant or smelter.

Jewelry – Some adult and children’s jewelry has been found to contain lead.

Toys – Some toys and other consumer products have been found to contain lead.

Water pipes - Lead pipes, brass plumbing fixtures and copper pipes soldered with lead can release lead into tap water.

What are risk factors for lead poisoning?

Factors that may increase the risk of lead poisoning include:

Age – Infants and young children are more likely to be exposed to lead than older children or adults.  Children may chew paint chips.  Or, children may contaminate their hands with lead and then put their finger into their mouth.  Young children absorb lead more easily than older children or adults.

Living in an older home – The use of lead-based paint was common until it was banned in 1978.  Anyone living in a home or remodeling a home built before 1978 is at greater risk of lead poisoning.

Certain hobbies – Refinishing old furniture could put a person in contact with layers of lead-paint.

What are symptoms of lead poisoning?

Initially, symptoms of lead poisoning can be hard to detect.  Signs and symptoms usually don’t appear until dangerous amounts have accumulated.

  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Sluggishness and fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Learning difficulties

Babies who are exposed to lead before birth may show signs of lead poisoning.
Symptoms in newborns include:

  • Learning difficulties
  • Slowed growth

Although children are primarily at risk, lead poisoning is also dangerous for adults.
Symptoms in adults include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Declines in mental functioning
  • Pain, numbness or tingling of the extremities
  • Muscular weakness
  • Headache
  • Abdominal pain
  • Memory loss
  • Mood disorders
  • Reduced sperm count, abnormal sperm
  • Miscarriage or premature birth in pregnant women
Tennessee CLPPP Provider's Toolkit

How do you assess your home for lead?

A lead paint inspection will identify the presence of lead-based paint.  Trained and certified inspectors often use x-ray fluorescence machines commonly called "XRF," to test for lead-based paint.  Paint chips can also be sent to a laboratory for testing.  For more information on assessing any possible lead in your building, see the Tennessee Childhood Poisoning Prevention’s webpage.

What should you do to protect your family from lead hazards?

  • Get your young children tested for lead, even if they seem healthy
  • Wash children’s hands, bottles, pacifiers, and toys often
  • Make sure children eat healthy, low-fat foods and get calcium in their diet
  • Get your home checked for lead hazards
  • Regularly clean floors, window sills, and other surfaces
  • Wipe soil off shoes before entering the house
  • Fix surfaces in the home with peeling or chipping paint, using appropriate lead-safe home repair methods
  • Take precautions to avoid exposure to lead dust when remodeling or renovating
  • Don’t use a belt-sander, propane torch, high temperature heat gun, scraper, or sandpaper on painted surfaces that may contain lead
  • Don’t try to remove lead-based paint yourself

Lead in drinking water

Metal water pipes may weaken over time.  To help protect your family, always let the cold water run for two to three minutes when using tap water the first time each day.  This will flush out lead or copper that may have settled over time.  Do not use hot water for drinking, cooking or making formula.  Metals are more likely to dissolve into hot water.  It is better to run cold water and then heat it on the stove or in the microwave.  For information on healthy drinking water, visit our Healthy Homes Drinking Water page.

Uncommon places to find lead that can harm your family

While the majority of lead poisoning comes from lead-based paint, lead in water or other common sources of lead, there are many places where lead is found that are not as well known.  Some examples include imported spices,  imported makeup, folk medicine and candy

For more information on lead, see our Environmental Health Topics section.


EPA Growing Gardens in Urban Soils

EPA Growing Gardens in Urban Soils

EPA Growing Gardens in Urban Soils

EPA Cultivando Huertos en Suelos Urbanos

Toolkit to Fund Lead Poisoning Prevention

The Green & Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI) released a Lead Funding Toolkit: a publicly-available, web-based practitioner’s guide including over 40 sources of funding for residential lead inspection, lead-based paint hazard remediation, lead service line replacement and soil remediation.

The Lead Funding Toolkit on the GHHI website outlines specific strategies for leveraging and deploying private, public and philanthropic lead funding in your jurisdiction. The Toolkit includes proven lead funding solutions and innovations on the horizon to help make your community a leader in finding sustainable support for lead hazard remediation of homes and to eliminate the life-long impact of childhood lead exposure.


Additional resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 
How does lead get into my tap water?

Tennessee Department of Health
Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program
Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program Lead Screening Guidelines

Online Providers' Toolkit
Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program

American Academy of Pediatrics
Lead Exposure and Lead Poisoning

Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation 
Toxic Substances Program
Drinking Water Program

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes (OLHCHH)