5 Hidden Lead Sources Lurking in Your Home

Your kids could be exposed to lead in ways you don’t suspect. Here’s what you can do about it.

5 Hidden Lead Sources Lurking in Your Home

The crisis in Flint, Michigan that began in 2014 exposed thousands of people to lead through contaminated water and pipes over several years. The ongoing calamity reminded us that lead can lurk in many places, endangering both children and adults.

The reality is, lead is found practically everywhere in the modern world. Most of it won’t harm healthy adults, who typically encounter the substance by either eating or inhaling it, or by being chronically exposed to it.

Young children are a different story, however. Not only are they more likely to be exposed to lead (since everything they find goes into their mouths), their developing brains and bodies are more vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning.

Lead-contaminated water and lead-based paint are two better-known lead poisoning threats. Children who live in a place with a known lead problem, or who live in a home built prior to 1960—if it’s not in good repair or has been renovated within the last six months—should be tested for elevated lead in their blood.

But what about other sources of lead? If you have young children at home, keep these five culprits for hidden lead exposure in mind.

Dishware
Certain dishes and utensils carry higher amounts of lead, creating potential risk because the heating process can cause lead to leach into food. Dishes manufactured in foreign countries (like those cute ceramic bowls you picked up on your last trip) and older dishware may be especially troublesome, since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) didn’t regulate lead in dishes until the 1970s. Newer dishes are less likely to be a concern, because stores face increased scrutiny now and most big chains conform to California’s tough lead standard.

To be on the safe side, follow these tips:

  • Microwave and store food in glass, not ceramic dishware, since heating and storing (especially acidic foods) increase the risk that the lead may leak into the food.
  • If a dish is chipped or cracked, replace it. Even in dishes purchased today, some lead may be present, and the glaze has to be intact to prevent lead from leaching out. So, if the glaze is disrupted or looks a little dusty or chalky after washing, the safest bet is to replace the dish.
  • Consider buying lead-free dishware, which you can find in many stores.

Toys
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) bans the use of lead in many children’s products, but not all of them. What’s more, periodic toy recalls show that lead-laden playthings manufactured in other countries do make their way stateside. Antique toys are often covered in lead-based paint, too, making them another bad choice for any young child.

What to do:

  • Avoid vinyl toys—think soft leathery-type toys and even shoes. These can be legally sold with certain lead levels because children aren’t expected to swallow or chew on them. (But any parent of a toddler knows what kids do with toys!)
  • Toss out “free” toys that are metal or painted. According to Dr. Gaylord Lopez, director of the Georgia Poison Center, you can’t know where they were manufactured, so it’s best to play it safe.
  • Save the antique toys until kids are older.
  • Sign up to receive news of government recalls of toys and other products from the CPSC.
  • For the youngest children, consider purchasing toys that are made in the United States, or through online sites that will help you discern which brands are specifically lead-free. Also, only buy toys for your child’s specific age group, since toys for little ones have more stringent requirements.

Jewelry
A piece of toy metal jewelry was responsible for a child’s death from lead poisoning after he swallowed it in 2006, leading to a large recall. In addition to toy jewelry, foreign-made jewelry poses a potential risk. To keep in mind:

  • Don’t let young children play with toy metal jewelry or your costume jewelry. Aside from lead concerns, it’s a good rule of thumb, since many of these are choking risks.
  • Keep your fantastic bracelets from your global travels out of reach until your child is old enough to keep them out of her mouth.

Food
There is no “safe” blood lead level, but lead manages to sneak into many facets of our daily lives. In fact, lead was detected in 20 percent of baby food samples tested over 10 years in the “Total Diet Study” conducted by the FDA. While the amount of lead found in the samples was low, any lead exposure should be minimized. Why? Low levels of lead in the blood are still associated with lower IQ, attention-related behavioral issues and lower academic achievement, according to the National Toxicology Program.

Even fruit juice is not risk-free. In the FDA’s study, 89 percent of grape juice, 67 percent of mixed fruit juice, 55 percent of apple juice and 45 percent of pear juice samples tested positive for lead.

What you can do:

  • Look online or call your favorite food brands to see if they test their products for lead regularly. If they do, confirm lead levels in the food are less than 1 ppb (parts per billion).
  • Avoid serving fruit juice to children younger than age 1, and serve it only rarely to older children.
  • Opt for fresh fruit and vegetables and avoid processed foods if possible, as lead could contaminate the food during processing. When you do give your little one prepared baby fruit and vegetables, pay close attention to serving sizes and give a variety of different foods, to minimize exposure to lead from any one source.

Keys
Lots of car, house and office keys contain a small amount of lead. So, if you have babies or small children, don’t let them play with or chew on your keys. Offer plastic toy keys instead, easily found online or at stores that sell baby supplies.

Still concerned? Many states mandate that all children be tested for lead exposure. If you’re concerned that your child may be exposed to lead, speak with your pediatrician to see if a blood test is warranted. And if you just want to check your house, contact your state’s department of health to find a local inspector.

Medically reviewed in March 2021.

Sources:

Council on Environmental Health. “Prevention of Childhood Lead Toxicity.” Pediatrics. July 2016, 138 (1) e20161493.
T Dignam, RB Kaufmann, et al. “Control of Lead Sources in the United States, 1970-2017: Public Health Progress and Current Challenges to Eliminating Lead Exposure.” Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: JPHM.P vol. 25 Suppl 1, Lead Poisoning Prevention, Suppl 1 LEAD POISONING PREVENTION (2019): S13-S22.
United States Consumer Product Safety Commission. “Lead in Paint.” 2021. Accessed March 17, 2021.
Peggy Peck. “Boy Dies After Swallowing Lead-Filled Charm.” MedPageToday. March 31, 2006.
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. “Total Diet Study.” February 23, 2018. Accessed March 17, 2021.
MB Heyman, SA Abrams. “Fruit Juice in Infants, Children, and Adolescents: Current Recommendations.” Pediatrics May 2017, e20170967.
Vermont Housing & Conservation Board. “Lead in Keys.” 2021. Accessed March 17, 2021.
Nevada Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. “Sources of Lead.” 2021. Accessed March 17, 2021.

More On

Indoor Pollution: How Healthy Is Your Home?

article

Indoor Pollution: How Healthy Is Your Home?
Ahhh, home at last. Time to unwind, kick off your shoes, and take a deep breath of . . . pollution? Yep. Indoor pollution. You may be surprised to kn...
How the Opioid Crisis Affects the Next Generation

slideshow

How the Opioid Crisis Affects the Next Generation
In 2012, one infant was born with neonatal abstinence syndrome every 25 minutes.
Is Your Tap Water Safe?

article

Is Your Tap Water Safe?
Thousands of people in Flint, Michigan, were exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water for more than a year. And now, the city is in a st...