Lead Poisoning: A Modern Plague among Children

Dr. Wornie Reed
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UCS | March 11, 2015, 3:53 pm EDT
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I am an advocate for bringing more public attention to the critical issue of childhood lead poisoning. It is the number one environmental health threat to children. Lead present in paint, dust, and soil is possibly our most significant toxic waste problem in terms of the seriousness and the extent of human health effects. Lead poisoning is more dangerous than some forms of cancer—yet it is virtually ignored by the American public.

This post is part of the series
Science and Democracy: Community Voices

Image: Letizia Tasselli/Flickr

I have been studying and writing about childhood lead poisoning for more than 25 years. During 10 of those years I directed a research center that addressed issues of urban children and youth. Lead poisoning seemed to be implicated in several of the educational issues of these children, especially their academic performance and behavior. Consequently, I see reasons for focusing on lead poisoning beyond the obvious health motives.

Dangerous, yet entirely preventable

Lead poisoning is a serious but preventable childhood condition, caused by exposure to lead, which is found primarily in paint, soil, and household dust. Children come in contact with these sources of lead during normal indoor and outdoor play.  Lead is especially dangerous to children under seven years of age because this is a critical phase in the development of their neurological system.

The implications of lead poisoning are vast, as the neurological damage it causes can lead to such problems as learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, reduced IQ, and behavioral disabilities. Consequently, lead poisoning is associated with poor school performance, delinquency, and even violent behavior.

There are approximately half a million children in the United States ages 1-5 with blood lead levels higher than the CDC suggests is safe.  Photo credit: CDC

There are approximately half a million children in the United States ages 1-5 with blood lead levels higher than the CDC suggests is safe. Photo credit: CDC


Lead poisoning among children has changed over the past three to four decades. Previously, it was a disease often presented as encephalopathy associated with children ingesting lead from paint chips. Now lead poisoning has become known as a largely asymptomatic condition characterized by an elevated blood lead level linked with many sources of exposure and affecting a broad range of children.

Today, at least 4 million households have children living in them that are being exposed to high levels of lead. There are approximately half a million children in the United States ages 1-5 with blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), the reference level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.

Except for severely poisoned children, there is no medical treatment for lead poisoning. Drug therapy can reduce high levels of lead in the body, such as might occur when a child eats paint chips; however, this therapy cannot undo the harm caused to developing organs and systems. Consequently, more focus should be on preventing lead exposure.

Blood lead levels have been steadily decreasing in the past two to three decades. This decline is generally attributed to the discontinuance of the use of leaded gasoline. However, this decreasing rate is expected to slow down, and lead poisoning is expected to continue as an issue, as the bans on lead-based paint and leaded gasoline might have already had the bulk of their effects.

An environmental justice issue

Lead poisoning is of special significance for African Americans as they are much more likely than white children to have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Since some of the principal sources of lead in the environment are flaking paint from old houses, auto emissions, and industrial sources, inner-city neighborhoods have higher rates of child lead poisoning than rural or suburban areas. Because African Americans tend to be the primary inner-city dwellers they are more at risk for lead poisoning than white children.

A small proportion of children are lead poisoned by eating paint chips from the walls of deteriorating inner-city dwellings. These children became ill and usually must be hospitalized. In most instances, however, childhood lead poisoning occurs from an accumulation of low levels of lead from household dust, and there are no immediate symptoms.

Canaries in a coal mine

Despite occasional attention to the professional removal of lead from the household environment through lead abatement, the most prominent prevention activity for lead poisoning is testing. Blood lead level testing is obviously not a primary prevention technique. With testing of children it appears as if they are being used the way miners previously used canary birds. Miners would send a canary down a mine to test for poisonous gases. A returning bird was a signal that there were no poisonous gases and it was safe for the men to enter the mine. If the bird did not come back that was a signal that there were poisonous gases and the bird had succumbed. Similarly with children, if we test them to determine whether their environments have lead we may find out too late, after they have been poisoned already. We need to practice more primary prevention and test and treat the environment—the home and the soil. Then we can get closer to assuring that we can act before children are poisoned.

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  • Wayne Kennedy

    arn’t all fuels toxic except maybe the water vapor from hydrogen …particularly in cities

  • Richard Solomon

    As a retired clinical psychologist who evaluated and treated hundreds of children over the course of a 30+ year career, I can attest to the fact that children of color are more likely to have the kinds of learning and behavioral problems associated with lead poisoning. I would support more work getting done on prevention. How will UCS help its members do this?

    • Wayne Kennedy

      30% toxic mold syndrome?
      [ glyphosphate accelerated growth as of the “Roundup” problem]

      also many more environmental things now

  • “Since some of the principal sources of lead in the environment are flaking paint from old houses, auto emissions, and industrial sources, inner-city neighborhoods have higher rates of child lead poisoning than rural or suburban areas.” … This is still an issue? Not from gasoline, government regulation fixed that … rather unfortunate that Cosmos episode 7 isn’t on Youtube yet for all to enjoy …

  • valkyrry

    Am investment in cleaning up our lead-contaminated soils would make people healthier and potentially lowere crime rates further

    http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/01/lead-crime-link-gasoline

    • Ken Stailey

      Sixteen-year old Janice Serrano grew up in the Main South neighborhood in Worcester, MA. There is an almost invisible danger that strikes Janice close to home: tests find that the very yard where she has lived and played in since she was a child is contaminated with dangerous levels of lead from chipping paint. Janice knows that she was just one of many children put at risk of brain damage, learning disabilities, stunted growth, and reproductive problems caused by lead poisoning. Janice and a group of youth who are forming a business that runs cooperatively with no bosses the Toxic Soil Busters Co-op decide to take matters into their own hands. Their challenge: to make Janice’s yard safe; their best weapons: plants that pull up lead as they grow and hand-powered landscaping techniques.

      https://youtu.be/F_t4Lf88gD0

      • Wayne Kennedy

        replace top say 9 inches with good top soil or cement? Think of it as a garden.

  • grumpy

    Aviation fuel for piston aircraft is still leaded.

    The FAA continues to prioritize the theoretical needs of airplane owners over the health of children, who eventually become adults. “The mission of this effort is to develop and implement a path forward for the identification, evaluation, fleet-wide certification, and deployment of the most promising unleaded replacement fuels with the least impact on the existing piston-engine aircraft fleet,” says the FAA.

    • Wayne Kennedy

      really didnt know coudnt they mix 5% diesel to lube valves instead

  • Jim

    No quarrel with the writer’s advocacy of primary prevention against Pb poisoning — but “Miners would send a canary down a mine to test for poisonous gases. A returning bird was a signal…” is a funny notion. Canaries, like other birds, don’t fly down holes in the ground — why would they do that? Nor do miners wait around to see whether they fly back up the shaft, inhaled bad air, or ran into a rock in the pitch dark.

    • David Evans

      Huh? Yes miners did indeed put birds in cages and sent them down into mines. You’re the one with the “funny notion” here.

      • Wayne Kennedy

        and yellow danaries would glow in mike cage