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The Harmful Effects of Lead Exposure in Children

Of all the things that can potentially harm your children, lead is not likely to be near the top of your worry list. But did you know that there are at least 4 million households in the United States where children are being exposed to dangerously high levels of lead? However, because children do not show signs or symptoms of high lead levels, this condition can go unrecognized.

There is no lead level that has been found to be safe in children. Even low levels of lead have been shown to cause developmental problems, academic difficulties, and behavioral issues. There are approximately half a million children who have lead levels over 5 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dl), which is considered the level at which intervention needs to be made. Children under the age of six are most at risk.

Children are exposed to lead in a variety of areas: contaminated paint chips and soil around old homes, old painted toys, ceramic dishes from foreign countries, and tap water that runs through lead pipes are among the most common. Lead was banned from paint and gasoline in 1978; however, children continue to be exposed in the dust and paint chips from home renovations.

If your child ingests lead-containing material, he or she is at risk of lead poisoning. While many children show no symptoms, other children may develop constipation, abdominal pain, fatigue, irritability, and weakness. Chronic lead exposure can also lead to anemia.

Depending on where you live and your child’s risk level of lead exposure, your pediatrician may order a simple blood test to detect the presence of lead. A blood test is the only way to accurately diagnose the level of lead in your child’s body. State health department recommendations vary depending on the community where you live and the risk of lead exposure.

Lead levels over 5 mcg/dl need immediate attention to reduce the amount of lead in the child’s environment. Children with extremely high levels of lead will need to be admitted to the hospital for an IV medication called a chelating agent, which helps eliminate lead from the body.


  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lead.
    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Low Level Lead Exposure Harms Children: A Renewed Call for Primary Prevention.
    American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Environmental Hazards.
    American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Blood Levels in Children: What Parents Need to Know.

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