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Lead in drinking water

Lead in drinking water

Lead is a naturally occurring metal element found in small amounts in the earth's crust. Lead can be found in the air, soil, water, and inside our homes.

How lead gets into drinking water

Lead in drinking water usually comes from water distribution lines or plumbing rather than lakes, wells or streams. Water is not a common source of lead. Lead from other sources, such as from old-paint chips or dust, are more common and can contribute to the child's overall lead exposure.

Health effects of lead and who is at risk

Lead can affect almost every organ and system in your body. Children who were exposed at age six years old and younger are the most at risk for lead poisoning. Their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults do and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead.

Lead in the blood of children can result in:

  • Permanent damage to the brain and nervous system, leading to behavior and learning problems, lower IQ, and hearing problems
  • Slowed growth
  • Anemia
  • In rare cases, ingestion of lead can cause seizures, coma, and even death

Pregnant women are also more vulnerable because of their developing babies. Exposure to lead during pregnancy can result in serious effects, including miscarriage, reduced growth of the baby, and premature birth. More info: CDC's lead and pregnant women.

Adults exposed to lead can suffer from:

  • Nervous, heart, and circulatory system effects – increased blood pressure, incidence of hypertension
  • Decreased kidney function
  • Reproductive problems (in both men and women)

Symptoms of lead poisoning

There may be no obvious symptoms. People affected by lead may not act or look sick.

Who should be tested for lead poisoning

If you are concerned that you or your child have been exposed to lead, talk to your health care provider. Your health care provider may ask questions to determine your risk for lead poisoning. The only way to know for sure if your child has been exposed to lead is to have their blood tested.

In addition, healthcare providers should assess all children for risk of lead poisoning at 12 and 24 months of age. Federal law currently mandates blood lead screening for all children covered by Medicaid. For more information, please see the Washington State Department of Health recommendations for lead testing in children.

Interpreting blood lead test results

The amount of lead found in a child's blood is called a blood lead level. There is no totally safe level of lead for children. The blood lead level will tell if your child has been exposed to lead in the last month. Blood lead tests tell how many micrograms (millionth of a gram) of lead are in each deciliter (tenth of a liter) of a child's blood (µg/dL). Blood lead levels can range from typical (below 2 µg/dL) to very dangerous (above 20 µg/dL).

If your child has lead poisoning

Fortunately, only a small number of babies and children have high enough levels of lead in their blood that they need treatment.

  • If your child's blood lead level is very high, your doctor recommend treatment with medicine for your child to lower the amount of lead in the blood.
  • If your child's blood lead level is above average, your health care provider should talk to you about how to reduce the level. Your health care provider should then test your child's blood lead level every few months until the level drops into the average range.
  • If one or more of your children has high blood lead levels, your doctor may call your local health department. The health department can help by inspecting your home for possible lead exposures and will work with you to reduce the sources.
  • Feed your child a diet that will help protect them from lead. Lead absorption is increased when there is not enough iron or calcium in a child's diet.
  • Give your child healthy foods, high in calcium, iron and vitamin C, and low in fat. Remember to wash your child's hands often, especially before meals and after playing outside.

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