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Home > Health Topics > Healthy Outlook > Look Out for Hidden Risk of Lead

Look Out for Hidden Risk of Lead

Published by Contra Costa Times
Posted on Wednesday, December 7, 2011
By Gail Doyle, RN, PHN

Holidays are an exciting time for families and children. Gifts, decorations and special meals bring families together, but can also carry a hidden risk of poisoning and injury.

Lead is a grey-white, soft metal that can poison a child's brain and blood. Even small amounts are dangerous, especially for young children. Lead interferes with brain function and creates learning and behavior issues. A child with lead poisoning usually does not look or act sick, and a routine blood test accurately detects developing problems.

Lead based paint was commonly used before 1978. The most common childhood exposure is through inhaling or ingesting dust when these older paints are chipped, sanded, or otherwise disturbed. Children can also be exposed to lead in other common household items.

Children's products and toys
  • Toys made of wood, plastic, metal and ceramics. The lead may be in the paint or glaze, or in the metal or plastic itself. Some examples are painted wooden blocks, plastic action figures, metal cars and ceramic tea sets.
  • Vinyl and soft plastic children's items like balls, lunch boxes, backpacks, rain ponchos and vinyl cords on jewelry.
  • Metal, wood or plastic jewelry from vending machines or stores. Jewelry can be coated with lead-based paint or made of metal that contains lead. Such jewelry is very dangerous if mouthed or swallowed.

Not all toys made of these materials contain lead, and the good news is that fewer toys and children's products were recalled for lead this year compared to past years. Most risky toys are inexpensive from dollar stores and older toys from second hand shops or swap meets. Be especially careful about toys that children put in their mouths. To be sure the toys in your house don't contain lead, you can check for recalled toys at


In addition to toys, the flexible plastic that coats the wires of Christmas tree lights and extension cords may contain lead. Some artificial Christmas trees are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which sometimes contains lead. Don't let children handle or mouth these products, and be sure to wash your hands after setting up an artificial tree or putting up tree lights.


Lead can be found in the glaze and decoration of some ceramic pots and dishes, including traditional Mexican clay bean pots and casserole dishes used to cook and serve holiday meals. Large amounts of lead can enter the food through the cooking process and therefore these ceramics are better used for decoration.


Lead has been found in some candies made in Mexico, Asia and other places. The amount of risk depends on how much lead is in the candy and how much candy is eaten. Go to to see a picture list of candies that have been recalled in California for high lead content.

Other Toy Risks

In addition to lead, parents should be aware of other toy hazards, such as choking, cut risks and other injuries. Children can choke or suffocate on small or broken toys, or deflated balloons. Be sure to discard plastic wrappings on toys, which can result in choking or suffocation.

For more information about lead poisoning prevention in Contra Costa County, visit or call 1-866-349-5323.

Gail Doyle is the health educator for the Lead Poisoning Prevention Project of the county health department.

Also of interest:

Contra Costa County home page