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Facts About...

Lead


What is lead?

Lead is a soft, blue-gray toxic metal. Lead occurs naturally, but much of its presence in the environment originates from its historic use in paint, gasoline and ongoing or historic mining and industrial operations. While lead may be useful for industries, at certain levels it can be harmful to people. Exposure to lead may lead to learning disabilities, behavioural problems or reduced intelligence. The developing fetus, infants and children are especially vulnerable to lead due to their developing nervous system, tendency to chew on things, and bodies that more readily absorb lead. Exposure to large amounts of lead can cause serious illness or even death.

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?

There are many possible symptoms of lead poisoning. Lead can affect many different parts of the body. A single high dose of lead such as swallowing a lead object (i.e., toy jewellery) can cause a severe health emergency. The symptoms of lead poisoning may include:

  • Abdominal pain and cramping (usually the first sign of a high, toxic dose of lead poison).
  • Aggressive behaviour.
  • Anaemia.
  • Constipation.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Headaches.
  • Irritability.
  • Loss of previous developmental skills (in young children).
  • Low appetite and energy.

Very high levels may cause vomiting, stumbling, muscle weakness, seizures or coma. Abdominal pain (stomach ache) and cramping is usually the first sign of a high, toxic dose of lead poison.

However, it is more common for lead poisoning to build up slowly over time. This occurs from repeated exposure to small amounts of lead. In this case, there may not be any obvious symptoms. The health problems get worse as the level of lead in the blood gets higher. Possible complications include:

  • Behaviour or attention problems.
  • Failure at school.
  • Hearing problems.
  • Kidney damage.
  • Reduced IQ.
  • Slowed body growth.

How can I reduce my family’s exposure to lead?

  • Indoor Dust - It is estimated that 50 percent of the daily lead intake of two-year old urban children occurs by ingestion of house dust through normal hand to mouth behaviour. Keep your home as dust-free as possible by using a wet mop on floors and hard surfaces and use a vacuum cleaner with a beater bar and a high efficiency filter.
  • Lead Paint - Lead paint can be found in houses built before 1978. This is the primary source of lead dust in pre-1978 homes. The older the house, the greater the probability it contains lead. Often, the best way to deal with lead paint is just to leave it alone. Disturbing the paint could create a problem that wasn’t there before. However, if the paint is deteriorating or is accessible to young children it may require repair.
  • Imported Toys - There have been many reports where toys manufactured outside of Canada have been identified as having lead in the paint. Such toys should be returned to the place of purchase or destroyed and discarded. Do not buy children’s jewellery unless the retailer can assure you that it does not contain lead. Toy jewellery from vending machines should be avoided.
  • Old Furniture - Old furniture, including old toys, may have been painted with lead-based paints. Attempting to remove the paint by sanding will create dust which may be high in lead.
  • Exposure at Work - Parents may bring lead dust home on their clothes. If you work in an environment containing lead dust, shower, wash your hair and change your clothes before leaving work. Street clothes and work clothes should be stored separately.
  • Drinking Water - Older homes built prior to the mid 1950s are more likely to have lead pipes and service lines. Between the mid 1950s and 1989 some lead was present in the fixtures or solder used to connect pipes. Homes built after 1989 are unlikely to have any pipes / service lines / fixtures or solder that contain lead as changes to the National Plumbing Code prohibited its use. For more information see "Lead in Drinking Water".
  • Canned Foods - In Canada food manufacturers have eliminated the use of lead-soldered cans, but lead sealed seams may still be found on some imported canned foods. Cans containing lead may be brought to Canada and sold. Over time the lead gets into the food. This happens faster after the can has been opened and especially with foods that are acidic.

Should I or my children be tested for lead?

If you have concerns that you or your children may have been exposed to lead contact your doctor or the Poison Control centre in your area. Through a simple blood test a family doctor can determine your blood lead level and, therefore, how much lead you have been exposed to. This is the most useful screening and diagnostic test for lead exposure.

Can I test for lead in my home?

Health Canada does not recommend the use of do-it-yourself home lead test kits. It is recommended that an accredited commercial laboratory be consulted for further testing advice. A list of accredited laboratories can be found on the Canadian Association for Laboratory Accreditation website www.cala.ca or by telephone at 613-233-5300.

If you suspect that you may have lead materials in your service lines or lead in your plumbing and you wish to have your tap water tested, the Region of Durham has a provincially mandated lead monitoring program. However, due to prescribed limitations on the number, and locations for sampling, not all locations will be suitable for the program. For information regarding your suitability for this program, please call the Durham Region Works Department at 1-800-372-1102 ext 2059.

Alternately, you can get your water tested by one of Ontario's licensed laboratories. Go to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment website: www.ene.gov.on.ca/en/water/tapwater/index.php to view a list of provincially-licensed labs and an interactive map with contact information for municipalities.

Where can I find more information on lead?

July 4, 2012