Blood Lead Levels in Pregnant & Breastfeeding Moms

​​Lead is toxic and particularly harmful for developing nervous systems. Lead can be passed through a pregnant woman’s placenta to the fetus, or through breast milk to a baby.

To minimize the risk to you and your baby from lead, take a moment to educate yourself about making your environment more lead safe.

Is there anything I can do to lower my exposure to lead during pregnancy?

Yes, you can avoid exposure to any known sources of lead before and during pregnancy.

  • If you are working with lead in your job or have a hobby such as making jewelry or stained glass, have your health care provider check your blood lead level.
  • If you are fixing up an older home containing lead-based paint,  be sure that the people working it are following safe procedures to protect you and your family from lead exposure. About 75% of homes built before 1978 contain some lead-based paint. The older the home the more likely it is to contain lead-based paint.
  • Water from public sources is regularly tested for lead. You can get information about your drinking water from your local board of health. Houses that use well water should have the water tested regularly for lead and other possible contaminants. See Lead in Tap Water & Household Plumbing: Parent FAQs.
  • Eat frequent and regular meals. Environmental lead is more easily absorbed into your bloodstream and retained in your body if you have an empty stomach.
  • A diet poor in calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin C, vitamin D and vitamin E can be associated with increased amount of lead absorbed into your bloodstream. Therefore, it is important for pregnant woman to eat a well-balanced diet and take prenatal vitamins.

Is there a test to tell how much lead I have been exposed to?

Yes, a blood lead test can be done to see how much lead is present. Although most people will have some lead in their blood, levels greater than 5 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL) indicate that there is some exposure that needs to be addressed. While there is no clear safe level of lead in the body, the goal is to have the lowest level possible. Women who had exposure to lead in the past should have levels checked.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends blood lead testing for pregnant and lactating women with one or more important risk factors for lead exposure and increased blood lead levels:

  • Recent immigration (from an area where lead contamination is high)
  • Living near point source of lead (e.g., lead mines, smelters, battery recycling plants, home remodeling)
  • Pica (i.e., compulsive eating of non-food items)
  • Occupational exposures (e.g., painters, those exposed to batteries or radiators, living with someone who works in lead industry)
  • Environmental exposures (e.g., lead-contaminated soil, water, or food)
  • Use of lead-containing cosmetics
  • Cooking/storing in lead-glazed pottery
  • Use of some herbal/alternative medicines

What effects could lead have on my baby?

The most serious effect of high levels of lead during pregnancy can cause miscarriage and stillbirth. Other pregnancy problems such as low birth weight and premature delivery can also occur. Additionally, high maternal lead levels can cause learning and behavior problems in exposed babies. It is unlikely that exposure to lead during pregnancy would significantly increase the chance for major physical birth defects.

Is there concern about lead if I am breastfeeding?

Generally speaking, breastfeeding is safe for women with elevated blood lead levels; however, babies of breastfeeding mothers with very high blood lead levels should be closely monitored.

A blood test should be performed within two weeks of baseline measurement and then at least on a monthly basis:

  • For babies with a blood lead level of 5 µg/dL or greater or rising: An environmental assessment is recommended.
  • For babies with a blood lead level that stays below 10 µg/dL: Breastfeeding should continue.