General Information

Children living in New Orleans are more susceptible to lead poisoning than children in many other parts of the country

Why is lead poisoning such a big problem in New Orleans?

How is lead absorbed?

Where does lead come from?

Who is at risk for lead poisoning?

What does lead do? Why is it so dangerous for children?

Is there a difference between having an elevated lead level and lead poisoning?

How do I know if my child has lead in his/her body?

How high is “high”?

How do I know if my home has lead paint in or around it?

What do I do if my child already has elevated lead levels/ what can I do to prevent it?

I hired a contractor to do some construction/remodeling work on my home, how do I know if the workers are doing the job safely?

I’m concerned about the level of lead in my soil. How high is too high?

I have a garden / I want to plant a garden. Is it safe to eat vegetables that grow in lead contaminated soil?

Lead is a toxic metal that was used in a variety of products such as paint, gasoline and piping (plumbing) in the past. Lead was used in these products to improve quality. In paint, lead increased vibrancy of colors and helped weatherize the paint. In gasoline, lead helped reduce engine wear. Lead also strengthened pipes commonly used in plumbing. When lead was found to be highly toxic, its use in these products was banned by the federal government. However, decades of use has left vast amounts of lead in the environment.

Lead poisoning is an issue all over the country to varying degrees. Lead poisoning in New Orleans in particular is a very big problem for the following reasons:

  • New Orleans is an old city with old structures. Over 90% of the homes in New Orleans were built before lead paint was banned in 1978. Because of that, most of the homes and buildings in the city have lead paint in them.
  • New Orleans is hot and humid. The climate creates moisture that is tough on the interior and exterior walls of homes and causes paint to break down. This is why you see so many houses (perhaps your own) with chipping paint in the city.
  • After Hurricane Katrina, the city began rebuilding. When buildings and homes are renovated and remodeled lead dust can escape and pollute the surrounding areas if the work is not done properly.

For these reasons, children in New Orleans are much more likely to have lead poisoning than children in other cities. In 2003, New Orleans children were seven times more likely to have lead poisoning than children in the rest of the country. City wide efforts to reduce lead poisoning have succeeded, but currently New Orleans children are still more than two times more likely to have lead poisoning than children in the rest of the country.


Lead can be eaten or inhaled. Eating lead paint chips containing lead will cause high levels of lead in the blood. However, eating paint chips is not the only way that children absorb lead. In fact, the most common way children absorb lead is by breathing lead dust or having lead residue (from dirt) on their hands or toys and then transferring hands and toys to their mouths while eating or playing.

The most common sources of lead in our environment come from:

  • Lead Paint: Chipping paint creates dust which contaminates the floor, walls and windowsills of homes. Dry sanding and home renovation also disturbs lead and releases it as dust which can easily be breathed or ingested.
  • Gasoline fumes containing lead were expelled as exhaust from automobiles further contaminating urban soils. Area’s next to highly trafficked roads contain very high amounts of lead.
  • Although not as common, lead can also be present in tap water running through old corroded pipes.

Young children aged 0-6 years old are at the highest risk for two reasons:

  1. The brain of a child is still developing. Lead has its greatest effect by interrupting the development of the body and brain in the crucial early stages of life. Children are smaller than adults, so a small amount of lead for us is a large amount of lead for them.
  2. Young children are more likely to put their hands in their mouth without washing them. Because they spend a lot of time crawling on the floor and playing in the dirt, they are more likely to get lead on their hands.

Lead has a similar chemical structure as calcium. Calcium is a very important mineral in our body. It grows and strengthens bones, but more importantly, calcium allows our brain to make new connections and communicate with the body. Because lead looks like calcium, the body can mistake one for the other and this creates complications. Children with lead poisoning may experience the following:

  • Difficulty learning in school and lower IQ levels
  • Stunted growth
  • Hearing difficulties
  • Hyperactivity, speech, and behavior problems

Yes, there is a difference between having lead in your body and having lead poisoning. Lead poisoning is a condition that results when a child has high levels of lead in their body for a long period of time without treating the issue. If caught early, steps can be taken to prevent further exposure and prevent long term effects

The only way to know if your children have elevated lead levels is to have them tested. The symptoms of lead poisoning usually appear after the lead has done significant damage. The effects of lead poisoning are irreversible so have you child tested before you suspect lead! The test is conducted by a doctor or nurse and involves a small finger prick to obtain a few drops of blood. If the lead level is high, the doctor will confirm the lead level by drawing more blood.

In 2014, the CDC broke with decades of policy dictating a “level of concern”. This was in response to mounting evidence that no level of lead in the body is safe, and the realization that setting an “individual toxicity threshold” risked ignoring lower levels that research consistently suggested could result in irreversible damages. The party line of the CDC is now to try to eliminate ALL exposure to lead. When the CDC uses the term “elevated” they are simply referring to a blood level above the national mean. Currently, that number is set at 5 μg/dL (micrograms per deciliter).  Below are the most recent CDC guidelines, followed by a link to the official CDC report for more information

<  5 μg/dL 5 μg/dL  – 45 μg/dL 45 μg/dL  – 69 μg/dL > 70 μg/dL
  • Education (Dietary & Environmental)
  • Follow up monitoring (see below)
  • Education (Dietary & Environmental)
  • Follow up monitoring (see below)
  • Complete history and physical exam
  • Lab work to determine iron levels, hemoglobin and hematocrit
  • Environmental investigation to determine hazards
  • Neurodevelopmental monitoring
  • Abdominal X-ray (if acute lead ingestion is suspected) with bowel decontamination if indicated
  • Education (Dietary & Environmental)
  • Follow up monitoring (see below)
  • Complete history and physical exam
  • Lab work to determine iron levels, hemoglobin & hematocrit and free erythrocyte protoporphyrin
  • Environmental investigation to determine hazards
  • Neurodevelopmental monitoring
  • Abdominal X-ray (if acute lead ingestion is suspected) with bowel decontamination if indicated
  • Cautiously consider chelation therapy, and hospitalization if lead-safe environment cannot be provided
  • Hospitalize and begin chelation therapy in consultation with a medical toxicologist
Recommended schedule for confirmatory testing of blood sample
5 μg/dL – 9 μg/dL 1-3 months
10 μg/dL – 44 μg/dL 1 week – 1 month
45 μg/dL – 49 μg/dL 48 hours
60 μg/dL – 69 μg/dL 24 hours
> 70 μg/dL Urgently

For more detailed information on all current CDC guidelines please click the link below to access the complete report:

Low Level Lead Exposure Harms Children: A Renewed Call for Primary Prevention
Report of the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention

of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention

If you live in New Orleans, the chances are your home contains lead paint. This is because most of the homes in New Orleans were built before lead paint was banned. However, just because you have lead paint in your home does not mean your child is exposed to it. If the paint is in good condition it will not create lead dust and residue. In these situations, it is best to leave the structure alone rather than risk disturbing the paint with costly renovations. Some areas, such as window sills and doorways are more prone to deterioration and should be visually inspected for chipping paint. For further analysis, and to test other areas such as soil you may:

  • Hire a certified risk assessor to inspect your home (NOLA Unleaded provides a list of certified contractors under “Community Resources”)
  • Contact the LSU Ag Center to obtain a soil testing kit which they will analyze for a variety of chemicals including lead.
  • Home testing kits are available at local hardware stores but they are commonly inaccurate and results should be confirmed by a risk assessor.

There are some very simple steps anyone can take to reduce the amount of lead their children are exposed to. These include:

  • Making sure children’s hands and toys are washed with soap and water as often as possible, and for their hands, especially before eating. Watch your child to see if they are putting objects in their mouth. Take steps to stop your child from putting objects in their mouth that are unclean.
  • Clean your home often and follow these DO’s and DON’Ts
    • DO use wet or damp mops and sponges
    • DO use all purpose cleaners (cleaners specifically designed to reduce lead can be found at a hardware store.
    • DON’T use a broom. Brooms will just spread dust particles into the air
    • DON’T beat or shake rugs for the same reason that you shouldn’t use brooms
  • Take off your shoes when you come home to prevent bringing in contaminated soil
  • Make sure children play in grassy areas instead of exposed soil.
  • When cooking, use cold water and let the tap run for about 15 seconds before using the water.
  • Eat foods high in calcium, iron and vitamin c such as green vegetables, milk, beans and fruit. The more calcium your child has, the less likely their body will take up lead. Similar principles apply for iron and Vitamin C.
  • If you see peeling or chipping paint in your home, try using common sense approaches like moving furniture to cover the area so your child cannot get to it.
  • If you or someone in your home works in the construction or painting industry, you should make sure they take off their work clothes and wash up before handling children. Work clothes that may be contaminated with lead should be washed separately from other clothes.

Ensuring hat construction/renovation work is done properly is the most important thing you can do to protect your child from lead. NEVER try to make repairs to your home if you suspect it has lead paint unless you are certified to work with lead paint. Tearing down walls, removing paint, sanding and repainting, nailing and drilling, if not done properly, will make a manageable problem much worse, and can be very expensive to remedy. When hiring a contractor you should be aware of the following:

  • All contractors working on homes with lead base paint are required by a 2001 New Orleans City Ordinance, and by a 2010 Federal Rule enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to follow certain safety precautions when disturbing surfaces with lead based paint. Some safety provisions include, but are not limited to:
    • The use of polyethylene plastic sheeting extending outward from the exterior of the home if work is exterior, and covering all surfaces on the inside of the home when working indoors.
    • The use of tarps to contain the home when working outside
    • HEPA vacuums and filters on all devices should be used if no containment barriers are erected.
    • Air conditioning systems should be shut off to prevent dust from entering the air ducts.
    • Lead based paint should never be disturbed by dry sanding or pressure washing
  • ALWAYS ask a contractor to provide proof of certification under the EPA Renovation Repair and Painting Rule (RRP Certified). Contractors without this certification who are working on structures containing lead based paint are subject to fines amounting up to $34,000 per violation per day, and may lose their license. The work on your home will be immediately stopped.
  • The consequences of having work done on your home without regard for proper techniques are dire. In extreme cases, improper work practices can make your home uninhabitable for children. Additionally, it is not at all uncommon for lead dust to spread your neighbor’s homes and beyond, thus putting their children at risk for lead poisoning. Choosing a responsible, certified contractor is extremely important.

If you have a soil test done the results will likely state the lead level in terms of parts per million (ppm) or mg/kg. The following guidelines are useful in determining how toxic your soil is based on the results of the test:

  • Some countries list a safe level as below 200 ppm (mg/kg), and others as low as 100 ppm (mg/kg). In the United States, the federal guidelines state that less than 400 ppm (mg/kg) is not likely to cause problems. You should still keep your children’s hands washed and try to direct them towards grassy areas to play.
  • If the lead level in your soil is anywhere from 400-5000 ppm (mg/kg), then the level is high and needs to be addressed. Addressing the issue is as simple as covering the affected soil with mulch or grass so that children will not come into direct contact with the soil.

Be careful not to track lead contaminated soil back into your home when gardening

The most recent research suggests that the danger of exposure from eating vegetables grown in lead contaminated soil is manageable. However,
 it 
is
 always 
wise 
to 
take
 precautions. 
Building
 a 
raised 
plant 
bed
and 
using 
clean 
soil 
is 
the 
safest 
route. 
If 
you 
can’t 
do 
this 
or 
you 
already
 have 
a
garden, 
then 
keep
 the 
following
information 
in 
mind:

• Lead
 does 
not readily 
dissolve 
in
water, 
so 
it 
is 
unlikely 
that 
it 
will 
be
present 
in 
the 
water 
that 
is 
taken 
up 
by the roots. 
For 
this 
reason, 
most 
fruit 
and
vegetables 
will 
be 
safe 
to 
eat.

  • Lead
 in
 the 
soil 
will 
contaminate 
the 
vegetables 
if 
it 
is 
present
 on
 the
 surface 
of
the 
vegetable 
or 
fruit 
as
 dirt.
 For
 this 
reason, 
it 
is 
important 
to 
thoroughly
 wash
all 
fruits 
and 
vegetables 
picked
 from
 a
 garden 
with
 lead
 contaminated 
soil.
  • Leafy
 greens 
and 
root 
vegetables 
are 
more 
likely 
to 
have 
lead
 on
 them. 
Leafy
greens 
have 
layers 
for 
dirt 
to
 hide, 
and
 root 
vegetables 
like 
carrots 
grow
 beneath
the
 soil 
and
 will 
be
 covered
 in
 dirt 
when 
picked.