(Date: December 2016. Version: 2a)

This factsheet has been written for members of the public by the UK Teratology Information Service (UKTIS). UKTIS is a not-for-profit organisation funded by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) on behalf of UK Health Departments. UKTIS has been providing scientific information to health care providers since 1983 on the effects that medicines, recreational drugs and chemicals may have on the developing baby during pregnancy.

What is lead and how might I be exposed to it?

Lead is a heavy metal that occurs naturally at low levels in soil, air, and water. Consequently, a small amount of lead is detectable in most people’s blood and this generally does not cause problems.

Exposure to high levels of lead is toxic and can cause illness and problems with the brain and nervous system. High level lead exposure can occur through contact with dust from the removal of lead-containing paint, use of some ethnic medicines and cosmetics such as traditional kohl eyeliners, and occasionally drinking water supplied through old lead water pipes. People who work with wood preservatives, pesticides, dyes, varnishes, catalysts, waterproofing chemicals, or paint and pottery glazes may also be at risk of being exposed to high levels of lead.

What are the risks of high level lead exposure during pregnancy?

Exposure to high levels of lead in pregnancy has been linked to miscarriage, reduced growth of the baby in the womb, and premature labour. High lead levels can also affect the development of a baby’s brain and nervous system causing permanent problems with learning as the child gets older.

How can I avoid high level lead exposure during pregnancy?

It is recommended that pregnant women avoid activities with a risk of high levels of lead exposure. If they cannot (for example at work), then use of personal protective equipment to limit the exposure is advised. The use of traditional medicines and cosmetics is not recommended, especially where the ingredients are unknown and/or the products may be unregulated (such as unbranded items bought on the internet).

What if I think I have been exposed to high levels of lead during pregnancy?

If you think you may have been exposed to a high level of lead, you are advised to speak to your doctor, who will arrange blood tests. If a high level of lead is found, the local public health team will offer advice, including on how to avoid further lead exposure.

Is there any treatment for high lead levels?

Yes, women with high blood lead levels may be offered a medicine called a chelating agent to help remove the lead from the body. Although there is not much information on use of chelating agents in pregnancy, they do not appear to be harmful to a baby in the womb, In any case, the benefits of reducing high lead levels during pregnancy are likely to outweigh any possible risk posed by these medicines. Pregnant women can discuss the possible risks and benefits of treatment with their doctor.

Will my baby need extra monitoring during pregnancy?

As part of their routine antenatal care most women will be offered a scan at around 20 weeks of pregnancy to look for birth defects and to check the baby’s growth.

If blood tests have shown high levels of lead during pregnancy, additional monitoring to check that the baby is growing as expected is likely to be offered, as well as further blood tests to ensure that lead levels are returning to normal.

Are there any risks to my baby if the father has been exposed to high levels of lead?

There is some evidence that that miscarriage and reduced growth of the baby in the womb may be more likely in pregnancies where the father had high blood lead levels around the time of conception. However, more research is required to confirm this finding.

Who can I talk to if I have questions?

If you have any questions regarding the information in this leaflet please discuss them with your health care provider. They can access more detailed medical and scientific information from www.uktis.org

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General information 

Up to 1 out of every 5 pregnancies ends in a miscarriage, and 1 in 40 babies are born with a birth defect. These are referred to as the background population risks.  They describe the chance of these events happening for any pregnancy before taking factors such as the mother’s health during pregnancy, her lifestyle, medicines she takes and the genetic make up of her and the baby’s father into account.

Medicines use in pregnancy

Most medicines used by the mother will cross the placenta and reach the baby. Sometimes this may have beneficial effects for the baby.  There are, however, some medicines that can harm a baby’s normal development.  How a medicine affects a baby may depend on the stage of pregnancy when the medicine is taken. If you are on regular medication you should discuss these effects with your doctor/health care team before becoming pregnant.

If a new medicine is suggested for you during pregnancy, please ensure the doctor or health care professional treating you is aware of your pregnancy.

When deciding whether or not to use a medicine in pregnancy you need to weigh up how the medicine might improve your and/or your unborn baby’s health against any possible problems that the drug may cause. Our bumps leaflets are written to provide you with a summary of what is known about use of a specific medicine in pregnancy so that you can decide together with your health care provider what is best for you and your baby.   

Every pregnancy is unique. The decision to start, stop, continue or change a prescribed medicine before or during pregnancy should be made in consultation with your health care provider. It is very helpful if you can record all your medication taken in pregnancy in your hand held maternity records.



Disclaimer: This information is not intended to replace the individual care and advice of your health care provider. New information is continually becoming available. Whilst every effort will be made to ensure that this information is accurate and up to date at the time of publication, we cannot cover every eventuality and the information providers cannot be held responsible for any adverse outcomes following decisions made on the basis of this information. We strongly advise that printouts should NOT be kept for any length of time, or for “future reference” as they can rapidly become out of date.

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