Lead exposure and poisoning factsheet


Lead is a toxic natural metal that is found in the ground. It can spread through the environment in water, dust, soil, and some paints.

Lead is toxic, which means it is harmful and cannot be broken down by the body. 

Lead can enter the body when children breathe in or swallow substances that contain lead. It can also affect a growing baby when breathed in or swallowed during pregnancy.

Lead takes a long time to leave the body and can build up in the blood.

  • lead exposure is when a child has either short or ongoing contact with lead
  • lead poisoning is when a child has higher levels of lead in their blood from exposure.

Children under five years old are most at risk of lead poisoning because they: 

  • put their hands or other objects into their mouths
  • absorb more lead into their bodies than adults
  • have brains that are still developing and more sensitive to lead.

Lead exposure and poisoning can affect your child’s learning and physical development.

 Signs and symptoms

If you think your child has been exposed to lead, you must act immediately.

Remove the toy or object you think contains lead and call the NSW Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 for immediate support. 

They will give you information about any first aid you may need and tell you whether to see your local doctor or the emergency department. 

Call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance or go to your nearest emergency department if your child has swallowed an object that is high in lead, including:

  • fishing sinkers
  • bullets or shots
  • leadlight.

Acute lead exposure

Acute lead exposure is a single exposure to high levels of lead, like swallowing a lead fishing sinker.

Symptoms include:

  • muscle pains
  • abdominal pain
  • feeling sleepy or low in energy
  • headaches
  • vomiting
  • fits or seizures
  • coma – when a person is unconscious for a long period.

Chronic lead exposure

Chronic lead exposure is long, continuous exposure to lead, like living in an older house painted with lead paint.

Symptoms include:

  • learning disabilities
  • poor hearing
  • behavioural problems
  • poor school performance
  • poor coordination
  • slow or abnormal growth.  


Your local doctor can diagnose lead exposure and poisoning by:

  • taking a medical history
  • doing a physical exam
  • checking your child’s symptoms
  • doing a blood test.

Lead exposure and poisoning can happen in groups. Anyone who shares a household with a child diagnosed with lead exposure or poisoning should have a blood test to check. 


Lead exposure and poisoning are treated by removing the lead source and preventing further exposure.

Depending on symptoms, some children may also need treatments like:

  • vitamins
  • chelation therapy – medication that sticks to lead in the body and helps it to pass through urine or wee.

Speak to your child’s doctor about treatments for lead exposure and poisoning.

Children who have had chronic exposure to lead may have long-term effects on their development. These effects may not show up for years, so it’s important to check in with your local doctor regularly as your child grows.


Common sources of lead in Australia

If you are concerned you or your child has been exposed to lead, call your local Public Health Unit (1300 066 055) so they can manage the source of the lead exposure.


Lead can be found in the paint on some children's toys. 

Australian manufacturing standards limit the amount of lead allowed in materials used to make and paint children's toys. 

Standards vary in different countries, so there is a risk that imported from overseas may contain higher levels of lead. 


Eye cosmetics imported from India, Pakistan, Africa and the Middle East may contain lead.

These products include:

  • kohl
  • kajal
  • surma. 

Lead alerts for cosmetics and other face and body products can be found by visiting The Therapeutic Goods Administration Safety Alerts page.

Older buildings

Lead was commonly used in building materials before 1970 and is still used in industry today. Lead flashing is a material used in roofing to create a durable, watertight seal. When damaged, it can release lead particles into the air. 

Older houses can also have plumbing made from lead that can contaminate water for up to 5 years.

Paint in older buildings

Lead-based paint used in buildings built before 1970 can create dust when disturbed during renovations. Dust from lead-based paint can easily be swallowed or inhaled.

Flakes of lead-based paint can also have a sweet taste, which is appealing to young children.


Until 2002, most petrol contained lead. This caused lead-contaminated car exhaust to be released into the air and the soil. Lead-based fuel was banned in Australia in 2002; however, heavy motor traffic areas still have higher lead levels. 

Lead particles can build up in soil and dust over time, which is dangerous for children living or playing in these areas. 

Other common lead products

Other everyday products that contain levels of lead include:

  • herbal medicines, including traditional Chinese and Indian medicines
  • glazed pottery and lead crystal food containers
  • fishing sinkers and other metal objects.
  • hobbies like crafting lead lighting, shooting, glazing and making fishing sinkers.

Preventing lead exposure and poisoning

There is no safe level of lead exposure. 

The only way to prevent lead exposure and poisoning is to keep your child away from known lead sources.

See the following strategies below to prevent lead exposure and poisoning.


  • test for lead in any pre-1970 paint in your home and contact a professional for lead paint removal if needed
  • avoid homes and childcare near any known lead industry
  • have your water tested if your pipes and plumbing are old.


  • Wash your child's hands regularly to reduce dirt and dust getting into their mouth
  • dust and mop with a damp cloth regularly to remove lead-containing dust
  • keep dust-contaminated clothes from workplaces where lead is out of the home and away from children.


  • include iron, calcium, and vitamin C-rich foods in your child's diet to lower the risk of lead absorption.


  • limit the use and purchase of lead-based products
  • if you do have lead-based products in the home, keep them secure and out of reach of children
  • research imported cosmetics, alternative medicines, and toys before purchasing.
Last updated Monday 8th April 2024


This factsheet is provided for general information only. It does not constitute health advice and should not be used to diagnose or treat any health condition.

Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for you and/or your child.

The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network does not accept responsibility for inaccuracies or omissions, the interpretation of the information, or for success or appropriateness of any treatment described in the factsheet.

© Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network 2024