Lead in Children

Lead is a common metal that has been used in products for hundreds of years. It is a naturally occurring heavy metal that is toxic when it enters our bodies. Although the use of lead in housing paint, gasoline, and drinking water pipes has been reduced or eliminated, old and new products containing lead can still be found in our environment. The products can contribute to lead poisoning. Even small amounts of lead can result in poor health outcomes. All people can be affected by lead, but lead is most dangerous to children, especially those under the age of six. 

  1. Health Effects
  2. Sources of Lead
  3. Who Should be Tested?
  4. Resources for Families


In children, lead is most damaging when they are six years old and younger. Children are growing at a very fast rate. They are growing bones, developing stronger muscles, and creating many connections in their brain. Lead is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream and distributed throughout the body. When lead, instead of essential nutrients, is "available" to the body, it can take the place of calcium and iron in the bones, and cause permanent damage to the brain and nervous system. Even at  levels below current standards, lead can be harmful and be associated with:

  • Learning disabilities resulting in a decreased intelligence (decreased IQ)
  • Attention deficit disorder
  • Behavior issues
  • Speech and language impairment
  • Nervous system damage
  • Anemia
  • Decreased muscle growth
  • Decreased bone growth
  • Kidney damage

In rare cases, very high levels of lead are life-threatening and can cause seizures, unconsciousness, and death.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has set a reference level of 3.5 μg/dL (micrograms per deciliter). This level is not considered a safe threshold; instead it is meant to be a reference level to trigger public health action.

There is no known safe blood lead level for children. The neurological effects of lead are irreversible.

pregnant women

In pregnant women, there is sufficient evidence that elevated maternal blood lead levels can:

  • Increase the risk for miscarriage
  • Increase the risk for the baby to be born too early or too small
  • Increase the risk of damage to the baby’s brain, kidneys, and nervous system
  • Increase the risk of the child to have learning or behavior problems

More information: Lead - At Risk Populations (CDC)

additional resources