Lead poisoning affects adults too

Lead poisoning affects adults too

Lead is a harmful metal that can cause serious health issues. When lead poisoning makes headlines, the focus is usually on children’s health: Kids are at higher risk for lead exposure, which can cause developmental, learning and behavior issues.

But lead can also harm adults. In adults, lead can cause increased blood pressure, kidney and brain problems, infertility and impotence. During pregnancy, lead exposure can cause miscarriage or babies to be born too soon or too small.

There is no safe blood lead level at any age: Even low levels of lead in the blood can cause health problems. Chronic exposure can make lead build up in the body, and the longer you have been exposed, the more difficult it is for your body to get rid of lead.

Most people with elevated blood lead levels do not look or feel sick, which can make lead poisoning hard to identify. The only way to know if you have been exposed to lead is to get a blood lead test from a health care provider.

The good news: Blood lead levels among New Yorkers are declining

This continued drop in blood lead levels is likely due to efforts that reduced lead exposures from food, water, air, paint and consumer products.

Stricter laws and regulations, prevention strategies such as screening at-risk populations, and public education and outreach have helped.

For example, New York State law requires that health care providers check pregnant people and those at risk for elevated blood lead levels. And federal law requires employers to monitor (regularly test) workers at jobs that put them at a higher risk for lead exposure, such as construction.

Even with improvements, adult lead poisoning remains a persistent issue

Between 2016 and 2018, about 1,750 New Yorkers age 16 or older (a rate of 15 people per 100,000) had blood lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher — the level the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses to define an elevated blood lead level for adults.

When somebody is tested for lead in the blood, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC Health Department) receives the results. When we (the Health Department) learn that somebody has an elevated blood lead level, we start an investigation, asking a long list of questions to find out how the person was exposed to lead and recommending ways for the person to reduce or eliminate their lead exposure.

This helps us protect New Yorkers with elevated blood lead levels and learn how New Yorkers are exposed to lead. Here’s what we have found:

In NYC, the most common source of lead exposure among nonpregnant adults is from construction-related jobs. Workers can breathe in or ingest lead dust or fumes during renovations, repairs and demolitions that disturb old lead-based paint. Work or hobbies related to metalwork, antique restoration, firearms or crafts involving materials with lead can also put adults at risk. Read more about what adults should know about lead poisoning here.

Consumer products can also expose people to lead. During our investigations, we pay special attention to consumer products from other countries: certain health remedies, foods and spices, cultural powders and traditional cookware. Lead is sometimes added to these products, either accidentally or intentionally. However, lead is typically not listed on the label, so it is hard to tell the difference between safe and dangerous products. For more information, visit nyc.gov/hazardousproducts .

As part of our investigations, we work to get these products off NYC store shelves before they endanger people by:

  • Routinely visiting shops where we think lead-containing products might be sold

  • Tracing hazardous products back to the stores where people bought them, if reportedly purchased in NYC

  • Taking action when we find hazardous products for sale

An investigator looking at potentially-contaminated products. An investigator looking at potentially-contaminated products.

An investigator looking at potentially contaminated products.

We buy products from NYC stores and send them to a lab for testing. Between 2017 and 2021:

We tested around
3,000
products

and found that over
1,800
had detectable levels of lead.

When we identify a product that has more lead than the allowable limits, we take enforcement actions to protect New Yorkers. We order the shops to stop selling the contaminated products and require them to post warning signs to inform their customers about the dangers of these products.

Since 2010, we have surveyed over 1,800 businesses and removed over 30,000 hazardous consumer products from store shelves. You can find more data on consumer products we test on Open Data.

One type of product that is more likely to contain lead are spices purchased abroad

We recommend that New Yorkers buy their spices locally in NYC, even if the spices are imported, rather than purchasing them abroad.

A NYC Health Department study on spices collected during investigations between 2008 and 2017, including nearly 1,500 samples of spices from 41 countries, found that more than half of spice samples had detectable lead concentrations. About one-third of the samples had a lead level higher than two parts per million (ppm), the permissible limit in the U.S. for lead in food additives.

Spices purchased abroad are more than three times as likely to exceed the permissible amount compared with spices purchased at stores in the U.S. Spices sold in stores in the U.S. are subject to regulatory oversight, such as border control checks and surveillance by state and federal agencies, which likely decreases the chance of lead contamination in those products.

It is not just spices

We have also investigated numerous cases of lead poisoning in children and adults associated with using:

Traditional health remedies including certain Ayurvedic medications prescribed or purchased over the counter in the U.S. or abroad.

Traditional or handmade ceramic and metal dishware that may contain lead at levels thousands of times higher than regulatory limits. Lead in dishware can transfer to the food or drinks that are prepared, stored or served in these products.

Cultural powders such as kohl, kajal, surma and sindoor. Lead can get into the body if a person touches their mouth after handling these products.

Certain immigrant communities in NYC are at higher risk of lead exposure. For example, South Asians are more likely to have elevated blood lead levels compared to other NYC residents. In addition to lead paint and occupational lead hazards, poisonings in this community have been associated with using traditional consumer products. Read more about lead poisoning and South Asians in NYC here.

Take steps to protect yourself and your family from lead exposure

If you do construction, metal work, antique restoration or other work or hobbies that might bring you into contact with lead:

  • Use protective clothing and a proper respirator, and follow all safety protocols
  • Wash your hands and face before eating, drinking or smoking
  • Avoid eating, drinking or smoking in the work area
  • Wash your work clothing separately from household laundry

Avoid consumer products that may contain lead. For more information, visit nyc.gov/hazardousproducts.

If you think you or your family members are at risk for lead poisoning, ask your health care provider for a blood lead test. Remind your provider to test your child for lead poisoning at ages 1 and 2 and ask about testing older children. If you need help finding a provider for no-cost or low-cost care, regardless of immigration status, insurance or ability to pay, call 311 or NYC Health + Hospitals at 844-NYC-4NYC (844-692-4692) for information.

Visit nyc.gov/lead or call 311 for more information.