Lead poisoning: Explore the basics facts

Learn the basics of lead poisoning, how children are exposed to it and what effects it has on their health.

Childhood lead poisoning is a preventable environmental problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there are about 250,000 cases in children 0-5 years of age. This is a decreased number since 1997. Although legislation has passed to limit the amount of lead used in certain products like toys and paint, lead is a heavy metal that never goes away. It’s durable, resists corrosion and is used in batteries, pipes, construction, paint and explosives.

In humans, lead interferes with the production of red blood cells. Lead poisoning is the result of continued exposure to the metal with gradual accumulation in a child’s body. Lead remains in a child’s body longer than in an adult’s body because it is stored in their bones and brains during a crucial period of development. Lead poisoning damages the brain by causing abnormal cell death, altering neuro-chemical functions and inhibiting protein function in synapse formation.

Lead poisoning affects children in various ways. It decreases intelligence quotient (IQ) and other intellectual functions, causes behavioral developmental problems, increases aggression levels, causes hyperactivity and a decreased attention span. Often problems are minimal and characteristics of lead poisoning can’t be detected until the lead has reached a dangerous level. Some characteristics to beware of are slowed physical growth, learning difficulties, hyperactivity, an inability to concentrate, short attention span, brain/nervous system damage, decreased IQ and abdominal pain.

Children can ingest lead easily by touching flaking paint on a window sill and also through lead-contaminated soil. There is often lead in the soil around lead painted homes, lead mining sites or heavily traveled roads. When children play outside in these areas, they get the soil on their hands and can ingest it through hand-to-mouth behavior.

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For more articles on child development please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.


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