Lead Exposure is Still a Concern, Especially to Kids in Low-Income Environments

Baby chewing on toy

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that lower-income children still have significant exposure to lead, despite many government programs designed to reduce exposure.
  • Lead exposure can lead to brain and nervous system damage, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, and hearing and speech problems. There is no safe blood lead level for children.
  • Proactive measures, like having your home checked, can help minimize kids’ risk of exposure.

There is something quite magical about watching your baby explore your home—it makes you see everything in a new light. You might become particularly aware of dangers you've never noticed before, like sharp corners or uncovered outlets (and that's where baby-proofing comes in). Something you might not have thought to look for, though, is lead paint, products, or fixtures. Lead is incredibly harmful, and it can be sometimes be found in homes built before 1978, certain water pipes, or toys, jewelry, and more.

Lead exposure is associated with damage to the immune and reproductive systems, as well as blood disorders. In fact, the detrimental impact of lead exposure led federal, state, and local institutions to impose regulations to lessen its potential risks. 

Despite these efforts to mitigate the issue (which have been in effect since the 1970s), a new study shows problems still persist. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics in September 2021, notes that children in low-income housing are still exposed to the substance at a high rate. The findings show that more work remains to help keep all children safe from the consequences of lead exposure.

A Closer Look at the Study

Researchers with Boston Children’s Hospital examined the results of blood tests of more than one million children nationwide. These children received blood lead testing from October 2018 to February 2020, and they were under 6 years old.

Along with gathering information on the blood lead levels (BLLs), investigators also gathered demographic information, such as sex, age, insurance type, race, ethnicity, and whether they lived in pre-1950s housing. The details allowed them to uncover associations between the children’s socioeconomic circumstances and the levels of lead detected in their blood. 

The study found that there was widespread exposure to lead among the participants. In fact, more than half of the children had detectable BLLs. Youth living in pre-1950s housing, as well as those living at the poverty level, had significantly elevated levels of lead exposure.

Experts note that there is no safe blood lead level for children, and though many measures have been enacted, more work still needs to be done.

“These results are significant because, despite tremendous progress that has been made over the past 50 years in eliminating lead from common sources, children are still being exposed to legacy sources of lead in their environments,” states Marissa Hauptman, MD, MPH, FAAP, lead author of the study and associate director of the Boston Children’s Hospital Pediatric Environmental Health Center.

Marissa Hauptman, MD, MPH, FAAP

These results are significant because, despite tremendous progress that has been made over the past 50 years in eliminating lead from common sources, children are still being exposed to legacy sources of lead in their environments.

— Marissa Hauptman, MD, MPH, FAAP

Keeping Kids Safe From Lead

Government and environmental agencies have long recognized the danger posed by blood lead levels in children.

Deanna Durica

Lead can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, and speech delays.

— Deanna Durica

“Lead can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, and speech delays," says Deanna Durica, the director of the Lead Poisoning Prevention and Healthy Homes Program at the Cook County Department of Public Health in Illinois. "It may take time for these issues to develop for the child and affect them even after the source of lead exposure has been identified and remediated."

Studies have also found that exposure to lead can contribute to an elevated risk of cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) launched a Lead Poisoning Prevention program in 1991. Their website also provides information on a number of initiatives taken to curb lead exposure.

Government-Backed Lead Prevention Programs

  • Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Act of 1971: This prohibited lead-based paint in homes built or renovated with federal assistance. It went into effect in 1978. The act also enabled grants for lead poisoning detection and treatment programs.
  • U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)'s 1978 ban: This prohibited toys, furnishings, and other items used by children that have a surface lead content level of at least 0.06%. This level was reduced to 0.009% in 2008.
  • Lead Contamination Control Act of 1988: This legislature gave the CDC the authority to develop programs to prevent lead poisoning in children. It also set up rules about lead content in drinking water and drinking containers.

These acts and numerous others made steps in the right direction to protect children and adults from interaction with lead. In some lower-income areas, however, they are not enough.

“Children who are African American and who live in low-income families are disproportionately more likely to face housing inequity," says Paul Allwood, PhD, MPH, Lead Poisoning Prevention and Environmental Health Tracking Branch Chief, at the National Center for Environmental Health. "These populations are less likely to have access to quality, safe housing. This inequity makes these populations more susceptible to lead poisoning from living in homes that contain lead-based paint, lead pipes, faucets, and plumbing fixtures.”

Taking Proactive Steps

Online resources offer an abundance of information on the toxic dangers of lead. Parents can take proactive steps to help their children. This can include having any home built before 1978 checked for lead-based paint or fixtures, as well as testing residential water for lead. You can also lessen the spread of contaminated dust by removing or wiping dirt off of shoes before entering the home. Finally, it's important to steer clear of any toys, jewelry, or cosmetics that contain lead.

Experts note that what a child eats can make a difference, too. “Nutrition also plays a role," Dr. Hauptman says. "If children have iron deficiency, they are going to absorb more lead from their gastrointestinal tracts than children without iron deficiency." Foods such as beans, chicken and turkey, egg yolks, and more contain high iron levels. Parents should reach out to their child’s doctor with any concerns or questions about lead exposure or testing.

However, the most helpful measure a parent can take is stopping exposure before it starts. “Children can experience harm at any blood lead level. The focus should always be on preventing exposure in the first place,” Dr. Allwood concludes.

What This Means For You

While lead poisoning can be scary, the best prevention is to take proactive measures. A good start is to make sure your child eats a healthy, nutritious diet, and to remove any items that could expose children to lead, like paint, jewelry, or toys. If you are concerned about possible lead exposure, talk to your child's healthcare provider.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health effects of lead exposure.

  2. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sources of lead exposure.

  3. Wani AL, Ara A, Usmani JA. Lead toxicity: a review. Interdiscip Toxicol. 2015;8(2):55-64. doi:10.1515/intox-2015-0009

  4. Hauptman M, Niles JK, Gudin J, Kaufman HW. Individual- and community-level factors associated with detectable and elevated blood lead levels in US children: results from a national clinical laboratory. JAMA Pediatr. 2021;175(12):1252-1260. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.3518

  5. Barry V, Steenland K. Lead exposure and mortality among U.S. workers in a surveillance program: Results from 10 additional years of follow-up. Environ Res. 2019;177:108625. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2019.108625

  6. Khan DA, Ansari WM, Khan FA. Synergistic effects of iron deficiency and lead exposure on blood lead levels in children. World J Pediatr. 2011;7:150-154. doi:10.1007/s12519-011-0257-9

By LaKeisha Fleming
LaKeisha Fleming is a prolific writer with over 20 years of experience writing for a variety of formats, from film and television scripts, to magazines articles and digital content. She has written for CNN, Tyler Perry Studios, Motherly, Atlanta Parent Magazine, Fayette Woman Magazine, and numerous others. She is passionate about parenting and family, as well as destigmatizing mental health issues. Her book, There Is No Heartbeat: From Miscarriage to Depression to Hope, is authentic, transparent, and providing hope to many.Visit her website at