2023 Edition

The Lead Test Guide

The Lead Test Summary
What: Lead exposure tests measure the amount of potentially dangerous lead you may be coming in contact with.
Who: Blood tests for lead exposure can be done by a professional healthcare practitioner; home tests can be bought and applied by anyone concerned about lead exposure.
Where: Personal lead exposure can be checked in a doctor’s office; a test kit can be applied at a home, office, or anywhere there may be high levels of lead.
When: Young children are particularly vulnerable to the ill effects of lead poisoning, and should have at least one blood test for lead exposure by their sixth birthday. High risk children should be tested before their second birthday. Adults should get tested
How: A blood test will measure the ratio of lead in the bloodstream; a home kit uses reactive chemical swabs to test for surface lead.
Type: Blood tests and home test kits.
Why: High concentrations of lead in the body can lead to lead poisoning and all its effects (renal failure, neurological problems, and seizure).
Time: Blood results can take up to a few days; positive test kit results can take as long as a few hours to show up.
Language: Depends on the practitioner.
Preparation: For blood tests, follow any physician’s orders and stay well hydrated. For home test kits, protect your hands from chemicals by wearing gloves and keep your area well ventilated.
Cost: The cost of a doctor's visit for the blood test; roughly $8 to $20 for a home kit.

Lead poisoning is a dangerous medical condition that occurs when an unsafe amount of lead is absorbed into the bloodstream. Because lead can be found in everyday items such as PVC plastics, car batteries and paint, human exposure can and does frequently occur. In cases where lead exposure is too high, a person can experience long-term kidney damage, neurological disorders and reproductive problems. The best way to ensure that families stay safe is to have individuals or homes tested for lead.

Types of Lead Exposure Tests

A blood test is the most direct method of testing and will indicate if exposure has occurred. Blood tests reveal the exact concentration of lead in the bloodstream.

Adults working in auto repair, construction, or ceramic factories are at higher than average risk for exposure, and anyone who suspects they might have been working with or around sources of lead should have a blood test for lead. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, young children should also be screened for lead exposure at least once.

Without testing, it is virtually impossible to know if one has been exposed to lead. Symptoms are vague and often do not immediately manifest, despite the risk of permanent damage. Signs include fatigue, anemia, headache, tremors, weight loss, memory loss or seizure.

Homes, offices and other environments can also be tested for lead. Professional screeners can provide fairly exact measurements of lead, but for many, a compact, store-bought test is more convenient and affordable for initial testing. Home test kits can be found online and in some hardware stores and typically cost between $8 and $20. However, home kits are limited to testing for accessible lead and do not detect lead beneath the surface of the tested object. For this reason, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) warns that a surface lead test is not entirely comprehensive or reliable. Instead, these tests are better used to obtain a general idea of from where lead sources may originate.

Home lead test kits typically consist of a few swabs or pieces of treated paper which are applied to the object or surface in question. If lead is detected, the swabs will usually change color to indicate the presence of lead. It is important to note, however, that some of the reactive chemicals used to test for lead can be potentially irritating or dangerous if accidentally consumed. When using lead test kits, consumers should wear gloves and ensure the testing area is ventilated.

Lead Exposure Test Results

Blood tests measurements indicate a ratio of lead present in the bloodstream and are typically expressed as micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL). Higher numbers indicate higher levels of lead present. In adults, a test result of less than 25 mcg/DL is considered acceptable. Ratios approaching 40 mcg/dL are dangerous and warrant medical attention. Results higher than 70 mcg/dL require immediate medical treatment and should be considered an emergency.

Recent efforts and improvements in removing lead from household products have helped children test for increasingly lower levels of lead, which has led to higher testing standards. In 1991, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended any result of 25 micrograms per deciliter to be acceptable for children. Since 1997, however, that number has been lowered to 10 micrograms per deciliter. Still, it is important to keep in mind that any lead exposure can potentially be dangerous, especially for young children.

For home test kits, the swab or paper tester will change color (indicated by each individual test product) if it comes into contact with lead. With low lead concentrations, it can take anywhere from 10 minutes to a few hours for the swab to change color, so testers should be prepared to wait. As mentioned earlier, the CPSC warns of a high rate of false negatives (failing to pick up on the presence of lead) in some of the kits. Although these tests are very useful, it is important to recognize their limitations.

If a home lead test offers a positive result, the item in question should immediately be quarantined or disposed, and a second opinion should be sought. Professional lead testers use very expensive testing equipment that can provide a more accurate reading than home test kits.

If you are interested in obtaining a lead exposure test for your home or office, or in seeing a doctor about possible lead exposure, please see our Lead Test Directory. To learn more about lead testing, read our interview with Daniel Locher, lead testing expert.

Sources: American Academy of Pediatrics, aap.org/; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cdc.gov/; Consumer Product Safety Commission, cpsc.gov/