It’s every parent’s nightmare: a child gets lead poisoning from the very toy that a family member gave as a gift. Lead poisoning is mostly invisible at first, but can cause varied symptoms including irritability, hearing loss, delayed growth and even death, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Children are far more likely to come into contact with lead in more mundane places. The main source of lead poisoning for children in the United States is lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust. All houses built before 1978 (when lead-based paint was banned) likely have some lead paint and as this paint deteriorates, it can cause a problem. Approximately 24 million homes have deteriorated lead paint and elevated levels of lead-contaminated house dust. Children live in more than 4 million of these homes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Children who have been exposed to lead often show no immediate symptoms. To reduce the risk of lead poisoning:

  • Keep children away from surfaces with chipping or peeling paint, including walls, floors and window sills, from the pre-1978 era. Children can inhale lead-contaminated dust or ingest it when they put toys, fingers and other objects in their mouth.
  • Check periodically for product recalls and remove a toy or other object immediately if it is on the list. Photos and descriptions of recalled toys can be found on the Consumer Product Safety Commission website or by calling 1-800-638-2772.
  • If you are concerned a toy may contain lead, throw it away. Don’t rely on do-it-yourself testing kits available in stores. They have not been proven to be reliable when the level of lead is low.
  • Consult a doctor. The only way to tell if a child has been exposed to lead is through a blood test. Your health care provider can help you decide whether such a test is needed and can also recommend treatment if your child has been exposed.

A few less common, but still notable sources of lead include:

  • Cosmetics – especially lipstick – have been shown to contain a trace of lead.
  • Water may pick up lead from the plumbing in a house. To minimize this risk, use only cold water from the tap for drinking, cooking, and for making baby formula, since hot water is more likely to contain higher levels of lead.

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Consumer Product Safety Commission