Skip to main content
Last Updated: February 20, 2019


Lead: Pregnancy

Image: Purchased

Big idea: A woman may have lead in her blood due to ingestion or inhalation over her lifetime.  In pregnancy, lead stored in the bones moves into mother’s blood stream.

Talking points:

  • A 2012 study involving UNC researchers found that samples taken from 211 pregnant women in six NC counties all contained some lead – between 0.19 and 7.72 ug/dL
  • CDC recommends maternal levels lower than 5.0 ug/dL to protect fetal health
  • Lead has been detected in the fetal brain as early as the end of the first trimester

Lead is associated with higher risk of:

  • Gestational hypertension (but not preeclampsia), even at levels < 5 µg/dl (Sower, 2002)
  • Miscarriage at BLLs as low as 5-9 µg/dl (Borja-Aburto, 1999)
  • Lower birth weight (Gonzalez-Cassio, 1997)
  • Declines in intelligence (Schass, 2006; Wasserman, 2000)
  • Preterm birth (Jelliffe-Pawlowski, 2006)

Most common sources of lead in pregnant women:

  • Recent immigration to U.S. (highest concern: Mexico, Ecuador, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India)
  • Pica
  • Use of alternative remedies, items used for worship, or cosmetics
  • Occupational exposure
  • Home exposures
  • Affected by nutritional status & cumulative life-time exposures


  • Common world wide practice
  • Help with stomach upset
  • Eaten for taste and texture
  • Harmful if substance consumed contains lead
  • Paint chips, pottery, clay & soil
  • Some of the highest BLLs found in women are associated with pica

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Committee on Obstetric Practice, Lead Screening During Pregnancy and Lactation, August 2012,
Sanders et al., PLoS One, 2012

Categories: Lead