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Childhood Lead Poisoning and the Environment

Lead occurs naturally in the Earth’s crust. It is released in the environment during some activities such as mining, manufacturing, and burning fossil fuels. Lead was once used in paints, gasoline, and some vinyl products, such as mini-blinds. It is still used to make batteries, ammunition, some metal pipes, and devices to shield X-rays.

The main source of childhood lead exposure is deteriorated lead-based paint, lead-contaminated dust, and lead-contaminated soil in and around older homes.

Twenty-three million housing units (21.9 percent) in the United States have peeling or chipping lead-based paint and high levels of lead-contaminated house dust. Young children live in more than 3.5 million of these homes.

Children may be exposed to lead by breathing or swallowing lead or lead dust. Once it enters the body, lead can become a health hazard.

Lead from paints, ceramic products, caulking, and pipe solder has been dramatically reduced in the United States due to health concerns. In 1978, lead-based paints were banned from use in homes. Lead has also been removed from gasoline. However, lead can still be found in the environment. Surveillance data show that children are still being exposed.

Lead and Health

The health effects associated with lead are the same whether it enters the body through breathing or swallowing. Lead can affect almost every organ and system in the body. The main target for lead toxicity is the nervous system.

Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and, at very high levels, seizures, coma, and even death. Because lead poisoning often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized. This is why routine blood lead testing is recommended for many children and required for Iowa children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers a blood lead level (BLL) of 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (µg/dL) or greater in a child to be elevated and to require individualized case management. However, recent studies suggest that adverse health effects exist in children at blood lead levels less than 10 µg/dL. No safe level of lead exposure has been identified.

Children are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults. The first 6 years, particularly the first 3 years, of life is the time when the brain grows the fastest and when the critical connections in the brain and nervous system that control thought, learning, hearing, movement, behavior, and emotions are formed. The normal behavior of children at this age -crawling, exploring, teething, putting objects in their mouth-puts them into contact with any lead that is present in their environment.

Data and information for this site are still being developed and added.  We welcome your comments and feedback.

This effort is supported by funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Environmental Public Health Tracking Program, Cooperative Agreement Number 5U38EH000619-02. The contents of this Website are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.