Lead poisoning, often thought to be an issue of the past, continues to be a very prevalent problem that is damaging the health and cognitive abilities of entire communities.
Whether at home, at school, or in other environments where lead is present, children are especially vulnerable. Exposure to high levels of the toxic substance is absorbed in the teeth and bones. This level of absorption not only has serious side effects on people, but has the potential to cause generational health risks.
Female children exposed to lead store it in their teeth and bones. It remains there through adulthood. During pregnancy, the female body releases stored calcium, often from bones and teeth, to support the developing fetus. When calcium is released, the lead that is stored in the bones and teeth is also released, directly impacting the health of the mother and child.
This child is born with lead poisoning and is at greater risk of behavioral issues or cognitive delays. This remains true even if the mother and child do not live in a high-risk area. Instead, the mother’s childhood exposure is passed to her child.
The brain is particularly sensitive to lead, which enters the body through ingestion or inhalation, causing negative cognitive, behavioral, and neurological effects that disrupt every system in the body.
One Milwaukee father, Nazir Al-Mujaahid, is all too familiar with the impact of lead poisoning. He said his 9-year-old son, Shu’aib, excels in sports, but learned to speak late, and lags behind his 6-year-old brother in reading.
Al-Mujaahid, 45, believes that lead poisoning hindered Shu’aib’s development and suspects the lead pipes in his home as the source. Children with greater lead levels may also have problems with learning and reading, delayed growth, and hearing loss. At high levels, lead can cause permanent brain damage and even death. “I found out about it because my son wasn’t developing normally,” Al-Mujaahid said. Shu’aib is among 9,600 Wisconsin children younger than 16 poisoned by lead between 2018 and 2020, according to Wisconsin Department of Health Services data.
According to KidsHealth, signs and symptoms of lead poisoning include:
- Behavioral problems and trouble concentrating
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- A metallic taste in the mouth
- Feeling tired
- Muscle and joint weakness
- Looking pale
Missouri has lead issues, too.
According to the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services (DHSS), 21% of Missouri housing was built before 1950 – at a time when lead-based paint was widely used. Another 65% of Missouri housing was built before 1978, and many of these houses also contain lead-based paint.
These houses pose particular hazards to children, who are more at risk for lead poisoning because they have faster respiratory rates than adults and they explore their world with their hands and mouths. Besides lead-based environment factors, items containing lead that children often put in their mouths include things like car keys and toys. In 2018, this translated to 83,633 Missouri children, younger than six, testing positive for lead. Of that number, 2,033 had lead levels between 5 and 9.9, and 515 had blood levels more than or equal to 10 mcg/dL. A result of 5 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) or higher requires action, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Cathy Wood, lead health educator at DHSS, hosted a workshop during the recent Get Link’d 2021 Missouri Rural Health Association Conference. The workshop, Lead’s Impact on the Developing Brain and the Life of Your Child, discussed the dangers of lead poisoning, the importance of regular exams for children, and the negative generational effects of lead poisoning.
Wood talked about the Southeastern Missouri Lead District, commonly known as the “Lead Belt,” that sits about an hour south of St. Louis. The area represents the leading mining district in the state — and in the U.S. — and it includes Crawford, Iron, Dent, Madison, Washington, Reynolds and Saint Francois Counties.
It’s no secret that environmental health hazards loom over this area, which has a rich history of lead mining, causing high levels of lead in soil and waterways. Wood discussed the risk levels in each county in Missouri and stressed the potency of lead and how a very small amount in a child’s system can pose a huge problem to their health.
She illustrated a dangerous level of lead using a small, standard sugar packet compared to a football stadium. The sugar packet is microscopic in comparison and would seemingly be insignificant, especially when examined next to the enormity of a football field. However, even lead in such miniscule amounts can have lasting effects in the human body.
Some of this exposure also comes from aging school infrastructure. School buildings more than 48 years old may harbor hidden sources of lead. Steven Snyder, a parent of an elementary school student in St. Louis, noticed the chipping paint on a chain link fence.
“It frightened me,” he told a local news station. “I was quite concerned, not just for my own child, but for all of the children here, especially the younger ones.”
Snyder recognized the common alligator-skin pattern on the lead-based paint because he had recently removed the same hazard from his historic home. His fears were confirmed when he used a household testing kit on a fence at the school. In response, the school took immediate remediation steps. These small amounts of lead, as Wood illustrated, could have grave consequences for school children innocently wrapping their fingers in between the chain links.
How to mitigate exposure
The DHSS recommends that children get tested between six months and 6 years of age, as they are at an increased risk due to neurological development, and because they spend a lot of time on the floor where hand-to-mouth behavior is the most common pathway for poisoning.
Childhood blood lead tests are performed by finger sticks. Elevated blood levels (EBLs) detected by a finger stick (or capillary test) require confirmation using a venous test. EBLs detected by a venous test are what triggers an environmental public health investigation, where drinking water, soil, dust wipe, and paint samples from a child’s home are analyzed for lead.
This underscores the crucial need to get children tested for lead exposure — early. The consequences and potential health impacts of not doing so are too crucial to ignore.
DHSS-CLPPP provides recommendations to parents or guardians for lead mitigation and testing at home.
Take a village approach
Parents who live in high-risk lead areas require additional information and support to help them protect their children from exposure. Health care providers and parents should work together to ensure that lead tests are conducted during annual visits. Lead-risk questionnaires are an easy way to get a dialogue started.
It’s essential that children with EBLs receive regular follow-up exams, as they may require nutritional supplements, clinical evaluations, and in some cases, hospitalization for severe lead poisoning.
When parents, teachers, and health care providers collaborate to intentionally and consistently monitor the child’s cognitive and physical development through the teen years – particularly for those who test positive for lead exposure – the child is better positioned to navigate educational, emotional, and physical challenges. This support will be a gamechanger for the many children who are already faced with economic hurdles and other social determinants of health that make the uphill battle steeper. Addressing lead exposure, and the risk for exposure, is one barrier we can eliminate for children through early and consistent testing.
For more information about the Child Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (CLPPP) and lead poisoning prevention, visit https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/about/program.htm, or find additional lead poisoning prevention resources.