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War Related Illness and Injury Study Center

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Lead is a naturally occurring metal found in the earth’s crust and is used for many commercial and industrial purposes. Service members who come into contact with lead-based paints that are deteriorating or who drink water from old lead pipes may be at risk for elevated lead levels.

Exposure to high lead levels for short periods of time may result in the following:

  • Metal-taste in mouth
  • Frequent stomach aches
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Muscle pain or weakness

Exposure to moderate lead levels for long periods of time may cause changes in:

  • Personality
  • Memory
  • Learning
  • Motor skills
  • Frequent stomach aches (lead colic)
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Weakness


Acute severe lead poisoning, which occurs when a person takes in a large amount of lead over a short period of time, may cause neurological difficulties, kidney problems, and miscarriages. There is no conclusive proof to date that lead causes cancer in humans.

If you are concerned about lead exposure, please talk to your health care provider. A simple blood test is all that is needed to determine if you have an elevated lead level.

Your body has many defense mechanisms to protect itself against lead. If your blood level is elevated, the best treatment is to stop the exposure and allow your body to eliminate the lead. A medication also can be used to quickly eliminate lead from the body, but this type of treatment is usually only for acute lead poisoning or very high levels of lead in the blood.

Ways to protect yourself from lead poisoning include:

  • Avoid exposure to lead products as much as possible.
  • Use lead testing kits if you suspect products have lead.
  • Avoid oral contact with lead products.
  • If you suspect lead in the water, drink potable water.
  • Run or flush water that has been standing overnight before using.
  • If you are living in an area contaminated with lead, wash your hands and face frequently and regularly clean the area of any dust or soil.