Summary: Lead Poisoning

Spotlight on Key Indicators: Lead Poisoning
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Learn More About Lead Poisoning

Lead Poisoning
Air Quality
Asthma
Water Quality
Why This Topic Is Important
Lead is a leading environmental threat to children’s health in the U.S. (1, 2). When children are exposed to lead—usually through contaminated dust, paint, or soil—it can have lifelong adverse effects, such as disrupted postnatal growth, hearing and learning disabilities, lowered IQ scores, behavioral problems, difficulty paying attention, and hyperactivity (1, 3). Children are especially vulnerable to toxic substances such as lead, as their bodies are fragile and still developing (1). Young children are the most vulnerable and tend to come into the greatest contact with lead, through playing or crawling on the ground or through hand-mouth contact (1). Some groups are at higher risk for lead exposure than others, particularly low-income and African American/black children (1, 3, 4).

No safe blood lead level (BLL) in children has been identified (3, 4, 5). Kidsdata.org reports on children and youth with elevated BLLs at or above 9.5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), but the threshold at which the CDC now recommends public health action be taken is 5 µg/dL, and adverse health effects can occur at even lower concentrations (4, 5). In addition, lead exposure often goes undetected as it usually does not result in obvious symptoms, and its effects are not reversible (2, 4, 5).

While the number of children affected by lead in the U.S. has decreased in recent decades due to policy changes, millions still are exposed each year, and an estimated 24 million households still have lead-based paint risks (3, 4).
For more information about lead poisoning, see kidsdata.org’s Research & Links section.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  California Environmental Health Tracking Program. (2015). Costs of environmental health conditions in California children. Public Health Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.phi.org/resources/?resource=cehtpkidshealthcosts

2.  Educational Services for Children Affected by Lead Expert Panel. (2015). Educational interventions for children affected by lead. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/publications/#screening

3.  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2017). Children's environmental health facts: Lead exposure. Retrieved from: http://www2.epa.gov/children/childrens-environmental-health-facts#lead

4.  National Center for Environmental Health. (2017). Lead. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead

5.  National Center for Environmental Health. (n.d.). Blood lead levels in children. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/acclpp/blood_lead_levels.htm
How Children Are Faring
In 2013, 1,427 California children and youth ages 0-20 (0.2% of all those tested) were found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood, down from 3,846 (0.6%) in 2007. Due to government regulations relating to young children, the vast majority of children and youth tested are under age 6; among those ages 0-5 screened in 2013, 1,288 (0.2%) had elevated levels of lead in their blood. While elevated blood lead levels are defined here as 9.5 micrograms per deciliter or higher, experts have identified no safe level of lead exposure for children.
Note: Children’s environmental health is an emerging area of research, and the data currently available give a limited picture of how children in California are faring. In many cases, county-level data are not specific enough to inform conclusions about children's health risks, but they can spark further inquiry.
Policy Implications
As the most common environmental illness among California children, lead poisoning is a serious and preventable public health issue (1). It can cause lifelong physical, cognitive, and behavioral problems, particularly for young children, whose developing systems are especially vulnerable (2, 3). Lead exposure may occur through dust, soil, lead-based paint, water, and other sources. No safe level of lead exposure has been identified (2, 3). Experts agree that prevention is the best course of action, and although regulations and abatement efforts have helped reduce the prevalence of lead in the environment in recent decades, lead continues to pose a significant threat to the health of hundreds of thousands of U.S. children (2, 3).

Policy options to prevent and address lead poisoning include:
  • Continuing to enforce and strengthen laws and regulations that help prevent environmental exposure to lead, as well as those that help identify and care for children who have been exposed (4)
  • Improving collaboration across disciplines to ensure that children affected by lead exposure are identified and receive services designed to meet their needs; this may involve ensuring consistent interpretation of federal laws and streamlining access to appropriate assessments, among other strategies (3)
  • Focusing prevention efforts broadly on multiple hazards in housing and early childhood settings—e.g., advancing strategic partnerships among organizations focused on health, housing, education, and environmental protection—instead of addressing single factors, such as lead or asbestos (5, 6)
  • Promoting effective implementation of policies and guidelines for environmental health in schools and child care settings that address lead risks along with other environmental hazards (5, 7)
  • Educating the public about the effects of lead exposure and how to prevent it; also, promoting workforce development, training, and assistance for professionals in multiple sectors (e.g., housing, child care, education, health care, etc.) regarding lead and other environmental health issues (3, 4, 6)
  • Supporting research on the connections between the environment and children’s health; also, supporting research that informs cost-effective strategies to develop healthy homes, schools, and early childhood settings, as well as effective methods to improve outcomes for lead-exposed children (3, 5, 6)
For more policy ideas on lead poisoning and on environmental health, see the CDC's Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, the California Department of Public Health’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Also see policy implications under Air Quality and Asthma on kidsdata.org.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  California Department of Public Health, Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch. (2017). Frequently asked questions. Retrieved from: https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CCDPHP/DEODC/CLPPB/Pages/frequently_asked_questions.aspx

2.  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2017). Children's environmental health facts: Lead exposure. Retrieved from: http://www2.epa.gov/children/childrens-environmental-health-facts#lead

3.  Educational Services for Children Affected by Lead Expert Panel. (2015). Educational interventions for children affected by lead. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/publications/#screening

4.  California Department of Public Health, Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch. (2017). California statues related to lead poisoning prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CCDPHP/DEODC/CLPPB/Pages/leg.aspx

5.  Environmental Law Institute, & Children’s Environmental Health Network. (2015). Reducing environmental exposures in child care facilities: A review of state policy. Retrieved from: http://www.eli.org/buildings/reducing-environmental-exposures-child-care-facilities

6.  National Center for Environmental Health. (2015). Healthy homes. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/healthyhomes.htm

7.  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2012). Voluntary guidelines for states: Development and implementation of a school environmental health program. Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/schools/voluntary-guidelines-states-development-and-implementation-school-environmental-health-0
Websites with Related Information
Key Reports and Research
County/Regional Reports
More Data Sources For Lead Poisoning