It's Not Just Old Houses: Protecting Children's Health from the Dangers of Lead

By Neasha Graves

Where can lead be found?

Approximately 150,000 at-risk children under 6 years old are tested for elevated blood lead levels (BLLs) each year in North Carolina. Most children are tested because they live in homes built before 1978 where they are more likely to be exposed to lead-based paint chips or dust. In North Carolina, 40% of homes are at-risk of having lead-based paint. However, children may be exposed to lead through other sources, including:

• Spices such as chili peppers and powder, Garam Masala, and turmeric
• Herbal teas such as mojhat ceremonial drink
• Ayurvedic medicines such as Balguti kesaria
• Old toys and toy jewelry that may be made with lead-contaminated plastic, metal or paint
• Brass objects such as keys, figures, and servingware
• Ceremonial powders and cosmetics such as kumkum, kohl and sindoor
• Contaminated clothing and equipment of parents working around lead or lead paint
• Lead pipes and solder
• Vinyl or plastic mini-blinds

Who is harmed by lead?

Children younger than 6 are most at-risk for lead poisoning since their bodies are still growing. They tend to be exposed to lead through crawling, playing and putting things in their mouths. There is no safe level of lead, and in fact, its adverse effects upon a child's brain can delay physical, intellectual and behavioral development even at low levels. Depending upon the blood lead level, the harm to children can range from lower IQ, attention and behavioral problems, delayed puberty, anemia and kidney damage to coma and death. The risk of lead poisoning is highest at age two; testing for children at ages 1 and 2 years is recommended. Another at-risk population is pregnant women because lead can pass to babies through their mothers.

In the past year, North Carolina has revised its policy requiring state and local health agencies to conduct lead home assessments with families of children under 6 who have blood lead levels as low as 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL). This is lower than the previous level of 10 µg/dL. In addition, the policy changes extend the offer for a lead home assessment to pregnant women who test with elevated BLLs.

How can families protect themselves from lead?

Parents concerned about any potential exposure to lead should contact their child's doctor or the local health department to request a blood lead test for their child. A list of health departments by county is available at:

Some other steps for protection from lead exposure include:

• Wash children's hands and toys often.
• Feed children healthy foods with calcium and iron to slow the absorption of lead.
• Purchase spices locally, instead of purchasing online or having them sent from overseas.
• Keep brass objects and ceremonial powders out of reach of small children.
• If you suspect that your home has lead-based paint, hire a certified professional to remove it.
• Wet clean around your home, especially where lead dust may exist.
• Take shoes off before entering your home each day.

With a growing, vibrant immigrant population in North Carolina, state and local health agencies are working to help parents who use certain spices, home remedies and ceremonial worship items understand the potential risks for exposure to lead. Some herbs and spices may be grown in lead-contaminated soil, or they may be contaminated during processing. Lead has even been intentionally added to spices like turmeric to enhance the color and weight before sale. Two resources recently developed by the NC Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program to inform people about the potential contamination of specific products include an online “Lead Sources" library, with images and a fact sheet called “Lead in Spices, Herbal Remedies, Ceremonial Powders and Cosmetics."

Where can I find additional resources on childhood lead poisoning?

The North Carolina Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (NC CLPPP) works to promote environmental, clinical and outreach initiatives aimed at improved health outcomes for children exposed to lead. As part of that work, the NC CLPPP partners with the UNC Institute for the Environment to provide educational trainings and materials for public health professionals and NC residents. Information on sources of lead exposure, certified lead professionals, steps for preventing exposure, lead-related policies and educational materials can be found at the following site:


NC DHHS Children's Environmental Health Unit, “2014 North Carolina Childhood Blood Lead Surveillance Data by County," .

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Lead,"

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Report of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention," January 2012,

N.C. General Statutes 130A-131.7-131.9H; Revisions July 2017 (p. 180-182),

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Sources of Lead,"

NC Lead and Healthy Homes Website

Neasha Graves is a community outreach and education manager in the UNC Institute for the Environment and coordinates outreach activities for the North Carolina Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. Contact information: