Facts on... Lead
Background on Lead
Prevention of Childhood Lead Poisoning
- Lead provides no known biological benefit to humans.
- Lead can produce adverse effects on virtually every system in the body;
it can damage the kidneys, the nervous system, the reproductive system, and cause high
blood pressure. It is especially harmful to the developing brains of fetuses and young
- There may be no lower threshold for some of the adverse effects of lead
in children. In addition, the harm that lead causes to children increases as their blood lead levels increase.
- Blood lead levels in children should be kept as low as possible but at least below 5 micrograms
per deciliter (µg/dL).
- Very high blood lead levels cause devastating health consequences
including seizures, coma, and death.
- Children with venous blood lead levels of 20 µg/dL or above or with
venous BLLs in the range of 15-19 µg/dL over a period of at least 3 months need a doctor's care.
- Elevated BLLs in children are a major preventable health problem that
affects children's mental and physical health. The higher a child's BLL and the longer it persists, the greater the chance that the child will be affected. Elevated blood lead
levels can result in:
- learning disabilities.
- behavioral problems.
- mental retardation.
- at extremely high levels (70 µg/dL or higher), seizures, coma, and even
Significant progress has been made in the United States in reducing overall rates of childhood lead exposure through comprehensive prevention strategies, including:
Environmental prevention strategies
Health-related prevention strategies
- Environmental standards that removed
lead from gasoline, paint, and plumbing.
- Water treatment and removing lead solder from food cans.
- Reducing lead-based paint hazards in children's homes.
Remaining sources of lead exposure
- Physician education.
- Family and community education.
Despite progress, major exposure sources still exist:
- Lead-based paint in older homes that is deteriorating, creating dust and
paint chips easily ingested by young children.
- Lead-based paint in homes that is disturbed during renovation or
- Lead-based paint in homes that is exposed, on a surface easily chewed by
a young child (such as a window sill).
- Lead-contaminated soil.
Other potential sources of lead exposure in some areas are:
- Operating or abandoned industrial sites and smelters. Although lead
pollution has been greatly reduced, some soil and dust contamination can still result.
- Occupations and hobbies. Children can be exposed to lead-contaminated
dust on parents' clothes.
- Use of lead-containing ceramics for cooking, eating or drinking.
- Use of traditional home remedies or cosmetics that contain lead.
The Current Situation
- Between 83% and 86% of all homes built before 1978 in the
United States have lead-based paint in them. The older the house, the more likely it is to
contain lead-based paint and to have a higher concentration of lead in the paint.
- Houses built before 1950 pose the greatest hazard to children because
they are much more likely to contain lead-based paint than newer houses.
- Average BLLs in the United States have fallen dramatically since the
1970s. Whereas in 1976-1980 the average BLL in children was 15 µg/dL, in 1991-1994, the average was 2.7 µg/dL.
- However, some populations of children continue to be
disproportionately exposed to lead. In general, children who live in older housing are
more likely to have elevated blood lead levels than the population of U.S. children as a whole. According to a national survey, from 1991-1994:
- 21.9% of black children ages 1 to 5 who were living in older housing had elevated blood lead levels (10 µg/dL or higher)
- 16.4% of poor children living in older housing had elevated blood lead
- 11.5% of children living in older housing in large urban areas
(population of 1,000,000 or greater) had elevated blood lead levels.
- 4.4% of all children had elevated blood lead levels.
- Depending on the severity of a child's BLL, follow-up treatment
- family education about preventing future contact with lead sources.
- environmental investigation and lead hazard reduction or abatement.
- medical treatment, such as chelation therapy.