Published on 12/03/08

Have a happy lead-free holiday

By Pamela Turner
University of Georgia

We often hear reports about lead in toys, electrical cords, holiday lights and artificial Christmas trees this time of year. Lead poisoning is very dangerous. Make every attempt to reduce exposure to lead hazards for you and your family.

Lead poisoning damages the brain and central nervous system, which can lead to learning disabilities, seizures or even death. Children are at greatest risk of exposure because they’re more likely to touch things and then put their contaminated hands into their mouths.

Lead may be found in the paint on some imported toys or in some plastics. Using lead in house paint, children’s products, dishes and cookware was banned in the United States in 1978. Lead is still used in other countries and may be found on some imported toys.

Lead may also be in certain plastics where it is used to soften it and make it more flexible. As the plastic is exposed to sunlight, air or detergents, the bond between the lead and plastics breaks down and forms harmful dust.

If you think your child has been exposed to a toy containing lead, remove the toy immediately and ask your healthcare provider about getting your child tested for lead. There will be no visible symptoms of lead poisoning. For information on toy recalls, go to or call (800) 638-2772.

Manufacturers may use lead as part of the polyvinyl chloride insulation around the wiring on strings of lights or the branches of artificial trees. Lead helps stabilize PVC so it doesn’t crack or crumble with age. It also acts as a fire retardant.

To reduce the lead dangers in your home during the holidays, wash your hands after hanging lights and decorations. If you own an older artificial tree and lights, replace them. When shopping for a new tree and lights, be sure to read the warning labels to determine if the products contain lead.

To further reduce your family’s exposure to lead:

  • Place a doormat by all outside doors and remove shoes outside to prevent tracking in lead dust.
  • Keep areas where children play clean and dust-free.
  • Leave lead-based paint undisturbed if it is in good condition.
  • Use lead-safe practices when removing paint, or hire a professional.
  • Eat a balanced diet rich in calcium and iron.
  • While there are many different sources of lead, the primary source of lead poisoning in children is still lead-based paint. There are do-it-yourself lead testing kits available, however, they aren’t very reliable and don’t indicate how much lead is present.

    Contact your local University of Georgia Cooperative Extension office at 1-800-ASK-UGA1 for more information on how to safely remove lead from your home.

    (Pamela Turner is an Extension housing specialist with the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.)

    Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.