Pregnancy and Lead

Lead is harmful to pregnant women and their unborn child. Lead can cause developmental and behavioral problems as a child grows. Lead can affect a woman's health long after birth. Exposure to lead can cause fertility problems, miscarriage, and stillbirth.

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Risk Factors for Lead Poisoning

Certain factors increase a pregnant woman's risk of lead exposure. The CDC notes the following risk factors put women more at risk for lead poisoning:

  • Occupational exposure: Working or living with someone who works with lead can cause exposure. Jobs likes smelting, construction, and welding can involve lead.
  • Recent immigration to the U.S.: Women who come from countries where lead is not regulated may have high blood lead levels.
  • Pica: Pregnant women can have cravings to eat non-food items. Some women crave soil, paint, pottery, or clay. These items are a potential source for lead, as well as other contaminants.
  • Poor nutrition: The human body can absorb lead faster without a healthy diet. Iron, calcium and vitamin C help protect the body from lead.

Sources of Lead

The CDC notes the following are also common sources of lead among pregnant women:

  • Glazed pottery: Lead is sometimes used in paints and glazes to give pottery a smooth and bright finish. Cooking and serving food in glazed pottery can cause lead exposure. The lead in glazed pottery can leach into food cooked or served in the pottery.
  • Use of alternative medicine/remedies: Home remedies and alternative medicines from outside the U.S. can contain lead.
  • Use of imported cosmetics: Cosmetics from outside the U.S. can contain lead.
  • Eating imported foods and food products: Imported food can be contaminated with lead through the soil where it was grown, by the fertilizer used, or how it was processed. Food products, like spices and additives, can also contain lead.
  • Paint: Older housing can contain leaded paint. As the paint chips, flakes, or breaks down, lead dust is released into the air and onto surfaces in the home. Breathing in this dust can expose you to lead. When renovating or remodeling older housing, you risk disturbing lead paint.
  • Drinking water: Older housing can contain plumbing made with lead. Lead can leach into the water as it passes through the plumbing.
  • Soil: Contamination to soil can come from peeling paint from the outside of an older home.
  • Hobbies: Certain hobbies, including fishing, shooting, using lead ammunition, glasswork, making pottery and refinishing antiques, may cause lead exposure.

Lead can affect you and your child

Lead can be stored in your bones. Over time, this lead can be released into the bloodstream, and can be passed to your unborn child. Lead can enter a child’s body before birth. If a mother has been exposed to lead, there is a chance lead can pass to the unborn child via the placenta. 

Children exposed to lead may experience:

  • Low birthweight
  • Premature birth
  • Problems in the brain and nervous system
  • Behavioral and learning problems

What if I have been exposed to lead?

Talk to your doctor about your concerns. Your doctor is there to answer any questions you may have about lead exposure. You can ask your doctor for a blood lead test at your next prenatal visit.

What can I do to keep myself and my child safe?

Lead poisoning is 100% preventable. There are many ways to protect yourself and your child from lead. These tips are easy to follow and can lower your exposure to lead.

  • If you live in older housing, cleaning is key. As paint cracks, peels, and breaks down, it generates lead dust. This dust can coat many surfaces we use daily. Cleaning at least once a week can keep lead dust at a minimum. Always use a wet mop or towel to clean surfaces.
  • Avoid staying in an older home that is undergoing renovations and/or remodeling. Lead dust is created as workers scrape or sand paint.
  • Avoid jobs and hobbies that may expose you to lead. If you or someone you live with are exposed to lead through work or hobbies, it’s important to stay safe. Avoid bringing work clothes and shoes into the home. Change into new clothing before entering the home. If you can, take a shower before or immediately after entering the home. Wash all clothes and shoes separate from regular laundry.
  • Wash your hands often, especially before cooking and eating.
  • Use cold water, if you have older plumbing. Lead is removed from older plumbing faster when you use hot water. Let the water run for a few minutes before using. Using cold water to cook, drink, and prepare baby formula lowers the risk of ingesting lead.
  • Talk to your doctor about your pregnancy. You can mention the types of supplements, vitamins, and home remedies you are taking, and ask if those may contain lead. You can also talk to your doctor if you are having cravings for non-food items. Your doctor can help you navigate these cravings by providing proper nutrition education.
  • Avoid using certain cosmetics, home remedies, cultural items, or products that are made outside of the U.S. Imported items can contain lead. Using these items can put you at risk for lead poisoning. Certain items, like cosmetics or cultural items, have cultural significance. Use of these items should be substituted with a non-lead product.
  • Don’t use ceramic dishware for eating or preparing food. Unless there is a label that says the dish doesn’t have lead, don’t use it. Avoid chipped or brightly colored dishware.
  • Eat a diet rich in calcium, iron, and vitamin C. Lead is absorbed faster on an empty stomach. Proper nutrition can protect you and your child. Eating foods rich in these nutrients can protect you and your child from lead poisoning. Avoid eating non-item foods like clay or pottery.