How Lead Poisoning Is Treated

And How to Reduce Your Risk

Lead poisoning treatment involves both limiting your exposure to lead and reducing the amount in your blood. Without treatment, exposure to lead can lead to severe and sometimes irreversible medical problems.

Once lead gets into the body, it gets deposited in bones, making it extremely difficult to remove. If lead levels in the blood are high, steps may be taken to prevent further exposure. If the levels are high enough to pose serious harm, a process known as chelation therapy can help clear the metal from the body.

This article explains how lead poisoning is treated, including the home remedies, vitamins, prescription drugs, and surgeries that may be used. It also explains how chelation therapy works and at what level of exposure the procedure is recommended.

How to Reduce Your Risk of Lead Poisoning

Verywell / Emily Roberts

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

Lead exposure is more likely in certain homes and environments than in others. This includes older buildings that may have used lead paint or poorer communities that may not have replaced outdated lead water pipes. Certain industries also place employees at an increased risk of lead exposure.

Until you remove lead from these environments—or you remove yourself from these environments—you run the risk of lead poisoning.

Fortunately, there are several things you can do even if the risk of lead toxicity is high.

Eliminating Sources of Lead

Because lead can accumulate in the body, the most important step in treatment is to prevent further exposure to lead.

Lead poisoning is often identified when high-risk individuals or communities are screened by public health authorities. If a case is identified, the authorities will investigate the person's environment to identify and remove the sources of lead exposure.

You can do the same in and around your own home. If lead is found, you can either remove it yourself or hire someone to do it for you. You can also take simple precautions to reduce the risk of environmental exposure.

Here are some of the things you can do:

  • Start by purchasing a home testing kit available online and at most hardware stores. They cost around $10 to $20 and test not only surfaces but your drinking water as well.
  • Isolate sources of lead until they can be removed or cleaned up. This may include locking up rooms where lead paint is peeling or putting barriers around gardens or plots where lead has been found in the soil.
  • If there is lead in the soil, wash your hands, toys, gardening tools, or anything else that comes into contact with the soil. Mop floors and wash common surfaces to remove tracked-in soil. Remove your shoes before entering the house.
  • Don't let your kids play in soil that may be contaminated with lead. Instead, let them play in sandboxes and grassy areas.
  • Avoid non-residential sources of lead, such as folk medicine, candies imported from Mexico, recalled toys, or cookware and containers that aren't lead-free.
  • If your house has lead pipes, use cold water to prep food as it tends to have less lead in it than warm water. Use bottled water for children and baby formula. Boiling water does not remove lead.

Lead Risk in Older Houses

If you are renovating a house built before 1978, you may need to vacate the property until all lead sources have been identified and removed. Unrenovated homes built before 1978 are more likely to have lead paint and lead water pipes.

Dietary Strategies

Certain nutrients like iron have been shown to help protect the body against lead by binding with the metal and preventing its absorption. By contrast, iron deficiency can make it easier for the body to absorb lead.

Eating foods that are rich in iron help lower the accumulation of lead in the body. This is especially true in younger children who tend to absorb lead more quickly than older kids and adults.

According to the National Institutes of Health, foods rich in iron include:

  • Lean meat
  • Seafood
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Vegetables
  • Fortified bread
  • Fortified cereals

Vitamin C can also play a role by helping the body absorb more iron. Rich sources of vitamin C include oranges, pineapples, bell peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, and cantaloupe.

Research has also shown that calcium found in dairy products and dark green vegetables can make it harder for lead to accumulate in bones. This is mainly because both lead and calcium are competing for the same spaces in bone tissues.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Therapies

In the same way that diet can reduce the absorption and further accumulation of lead in the body, certain dietary supplements can aid in the effort.

Although research remains sparse, the vitamin or mineral supplements thought to reduce lead absorption or accumulation include:

The supplements thought to increase the excretion of lead from the body include:

  • Vitamin C
  • Iron
  • Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
  • Vitamin B6 (folate)
  • Vitamin E

Vitamin or mineral supplements should not be regarded as a "treatment" for lead poisoning but rather as a way to prevent further accumulation. Overusing supplements can have serious consequences, including vitamin toxicity.

Prescriptions

Prescription drugs may be used to treat neurological symptoms of lead poisoning. They do not help clear lead from the body but instead help control symptoms of a condition known as lead encephalopathy.

Lead encephalopathy occurs when lead penetrates the membrane surrounding the brain and starts breaking down tissues. This leads to brain swelling (cerebral edema). Symptoms include the loss of muscle control, an altered mental state, delirium, and seizures.

Prescription medications used to treat lead encephalopathy include:

Chelation Therapy 

Chelation therapy is a treatment that uses drugs that remove toxic metals from the body. The drugs work by binding (chelating) to metals in the blood and removing them from the body in urine or stool.

There are several chelation drugs used to treat lead poisoning. Some are given intravenously (through a needle inserted into a vein) and others are given orally (by mouth in pill form).

Lead chelating agents approved for use in the United States include:

  • Chemet (succimer): Taken by mouth
  • Cupramine (D-penicillamine): Taken by mouth
  • Dimercaprol: Delivered intravenously
  • Versinate (calcium disodium EDTA): Delivered intravenously

Common side effects include fever, headache, nausea, fatigue, rash, vision changes, and blood in the urine.

Rare but serious complications of chelation therapy include:

Who Should Get Chelation Therapy?

In the past, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that blood lead levels equal to or greater than 10 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) were of concern in children.

In recent years, research has shown that lower levels of exposure can cause significant cognitive and behavioral problems, including lower intelligence quotient (IQs). As a result, the CDC revised its guidelines in 2021 so that the current level of concern in children is 3.5 mcg/dL.

Even so, this level of toxicity doesn't mean that chelation therapy is needed. Chelation therapy is typically started at higher blood levels due to limited evidence that the procedure is beneficial at lower blood levels.

Indications for Chelation Therapy

Chelation therapy is generally pursued in children with blood lead levels of 45 mcg/dL or greater. Adults with high blood lead levels or symptoms of lead poisoning may also be treated. The decision to treat is an individual one based on a review of the potential benefits and risks.

Surgeries and Specialist-Driven Procedures 

Surgery and other specialist procedures may be used if a prominent lead source is found in the digestive tract or elsewhere in the body. This is referred to as acute lead contamination.

Examples of acute lead contamination include the accidental swallowing of lead shot or lead-glazed ceramics. Lead can also enter the body following a traumatic injury involving shrapnel or lead-containing bullets.

Some of the procedures used to treat acute lead contamination, either on their own or in combination, include:

  • Whole bowel irrigation: This is the rapid administration of a large volume of polyethylene glycol solution to help flush the entire gastrointestinal tract.
  • Endoscopic removal: This is the removal of lead-containing fragments from the digestive tract using an endoscope (a flexible scope with a tiny camera that is fed into the mouth to view the stomach and small intestine).
  • Surgery: This may be needed to remove lead fragments, such as bullets or shrapnel, from the body.

Summary

The treatment of lead poisoning is initially focused on preventing further exposure to lead. This includes identifying and removing sources of lead from your home and environment. Diet and dietary supplements may aid in reducing lead absorption.

If lead levels in the blood are excessive, a procedure known as chelation therapy can help remove lead from the body. It involves either an oral or intravenous agent that binds to lead so that it can be cleared from the body in stool or urine.

Symptoms of lead encephalopathy may be treated with anticonvulsants, steroids, and a diuretic drug called Osmitrol (mannitol). In cases of acute contamination (such as the accidental ingestion of lead), whole bowel irrigation, endoscopy, or surgery may be used.

A Word From Verywell

It can be distressing to learn that the level of lead in your body is high, particularly given the potential long-term harm. Your first instinct may be to "get rid of it" and start chelation therapy, but this is not always the most appropriate response.

As beneficial as chelation therapy is, it does carry risks. To this end, speak with a specialist, such as a medical toxicologist, to get a better understanding of whether chelation therapy is safe and appropriate for you as an individual.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long is lead poisoning treatment?

    It depends on the severity of the lead poisoning and the type of chelating agent used.

    With oral agents like Chemet (succimer), the standard course of treatment is 14 days with an additional course if needed.

    With injectable agents like Versinate (calcium disodium EDTA), the standard course is five days followed by a second five-day course in most cases.

  • Is lead poisoning treatment safe?

    If administered appropriately, chelation therapy is relatively safe, With that said, it is typically avoided in people with kidney failure or heart failure due to the risk of kidney damage or hypocalcemia (a condition that can induce heart failure).

    The intravenous chelating agent dimercaprol cannot be used in people with a peanut allergy.

  • Is lead poisoning reversible?

    Some of the harms caused by lead poisoning are reversible, including kidney and heart problems. But, any brain damage caused by lead poisoning is generally not reversible.

    Chelation therapy may remove lead to the point where it is less likely to cause harm, but it may not remove it completely.

  • Can you treat lead poisoning naturally?

    No, it is not possible to treat lead poisoning naturally. Chelation therapy is the only treatment that can remove lead from the body. With that said, removing yourself from sources of lead is equally important, although this can be difficult if you live in an older home with lead paint or lead pipes.

  • What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?

    The symptoms of lead poisoning are often non-specific and easy to miss. For children, they include aggression, hyperactivity, learning difficulty, hearing problems, and chronic stomach pain.

    For adults, symptoms may include headaches, joint pain, metallic taste, muscle weakness, digestion problems, change in personality, loss of concentration, and memory problems.

  • What are the long-term effects of lead poisoning?

    The long-term consequences of lead poisoning include high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, and lung, stomach, or bladder cancer. It can also cause pregnancy complications such as low birth weight, preterm birth, miscarriage, and stillbirth.

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By Robyn Correll, MPH
Robyn Correll, MPH holds a master of public health degree and has over a decade of experience working in the prevention of infectious diseases.