5 Hidden Lead Sources to Know About

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

mother feeding a happy baby

Updated on November 17, 2023.

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 be 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 they place so much of what they encounter into their mouths, but 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 areas with known lead problems or who live in homes built prior to 1960 should be tested for elevated lead in their blood, particularly homes that are not in good repair or have been renovated within the last six months.

But these aren’t the only sources of lead. If you have young children at home, keep these five lesser-known sources of potential lead exposure in mind.


Certain dishes and utensils carry higher amounts of lead, creating potential risk because the process of hearing them can cause lead to leach into food. 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 manufacturers face increased scrutiny now and most retailers conform to California’s tough lead standard.

To be on the safe side, follow these tips:

  • Microwave and store food in glass rather than ceramic dishware, since the processes of heating and storing increase the risk that lead may leak into the food, particularly when acidic foods are involved.
  • If a dish is chipped or cracked, replace it. Some lead may be present even in dishes manufactured in recent years, and the glaze has to be intact to prevent lead from leaching out. If the glaze is disrupted or looks 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.


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-containing playthings manufactured in other countries do tend to make their way to the United States. Antique toys are often decorated in lead-based paint, 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.
  • Toss out any metal or painted toys with unknown origins. If you don’t know where they were manufactured, 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 U.S., or through online sites that will help you discern which brands are explicitly lead-free. Only buy toys for your child’s specific age group, since toys for little ones have more stringent requirements.


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 also choking risks.
  • Keep souvenirs from your global travels out of reach until your child is old enough to keep them out of their mouth.


There is no “safe” blood lead level, but lead manages to sneak into many realms 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” published by the FDA in 2018.

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.


Lots of car, house, and office keys contain a small amount of lead. If you have babies or small children, don’t let them play with or chew on your keys and offer them safe, chewable toys as an alternative.

Next steps to take

Though these are common sources of lead in and around your home, they aren't the only ones. For example, people with certain occupations may bring it in on their clothes, and sometimes, garden soil in urban areas can contain lead, too. Fortunately, 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 want to check your house, contact your state’s department of health to find a local inspector.

Article sources open article 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.

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