6 Effects of Lead on Children's Health

The effects of lead on children's health have led health agencies to work on its prevention and control. Keep reading to learn more.
6 Effects of Lead on Children's Health

Last update: 03 June, 2023

In 2020, UNICEF revealed that one-third of the world’s children are contaminated by lead and, therefore, measures must be taken to prevent or stop lead poisoning. The warning signal is given by the effects of lead on children’s health. For example, exposure to lead can lead to brain damage as well as performance and behavioral problems.

In addition, children are considered a vulnerable group because of their exploratory behavior and wanting to put everything in their mouths. To prevent damage from lead poisoning, contact with sources of lead should be avoided.

That’s why, in this article, we’ll discuss the effects of lead on children, its main sources, including food, and some general tips to avoid it. Stick around to learn how to prevent lead poisoning in children.

What is lead?

According to the Spanish Agency for Food Safety and Nutrition (AESAN), lead is a heavy metal that can act as a contaminant for both the environment and people. It’s found in organic and inorganic forms. The latter is the most common form found in nature.

How does lead enter the body?

There are 3 main ways in which lead enters the body, according to the World Health Organization:

  • Through the respiratory route, by inhaling the products of burning certain materials.
  • By ingesting particles present in dust, water (that which flows through lead pipes), and food.
  • Through medicines, toys, and cosmetics.

At the environmental level, lead arrives through mining and smelting. Soldering, battery manufacturing, pottery, ammunition, some paints, gasoline, and contaminated soil dust are also sources of lead.

And what about food? Well, although they’re not the main source of contamination, frequent consumption of some foods, such as grains, can become an important source of lead.

Root vegetables can contain lead.

Vulnerable populations

Pregnant or nursing mothers, as well as young children, are considered to be the most vulnerable populations to lead contamination. In the particular case of children, the WHO states that there’s no level of lead exposure below which it can be said that they won’t suffer harmful effects.

What are the effects of lead on children’s health? We’ll see them below.

How does lead affect children’s health?

While in adults, the allowable blood lead value is 30 micrograms per deciliter, in children, any minimum value is considered high risk, as the effects it produces affect their good growth and development in the short and long term.

1. Decreased academic performance

A review in the International Journal of Occupational Medicine on Environmental Health, reports that elevated blood lead levels in children may be associated with lower IQ scores.

Furthermore, it appears that the problem extends beyond childhood, as a recent study in the journal Sciences Advances indicates that childhood lead contamination may be associated with poor cognitive functioning in adulthood.

2. Neurological problems

Lead exposure can cause brain damage in children, which contributes to the development of neurological diseases, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This is one of the most serious health effects of lead in children.

A doctoral thesis conducted at Walden University suggests that childhood lead exposure may have a significant effect on general ADHD symptoms and impulsivity.

Another study published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review found similar results between lead exposure and ADHD in young children. It even suggested a dose-effect relationship (the greater the exposure to this metal, the greater the risk of disease). In addition, the disorder was accompanied by low IQ and behavioral problems.

3. Alteration of the immune system

Lead exposure could alter the immune system of children, making them more susceptible to infection and disease. Research published in the journal Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety in 2021 reported that lead exposure early in life may contribute to the “development of inappropriate immune responses.”

4. Behavioral problems and aggression

A press release from the National Institute of Health suggested that children with low lead levels may develop emotional and behavioral problems. Furthermore, the relationship may be direct and proportional, as as blood lead levels increase, behavioral problems may also increase.

5. Hearing problems

The magazine Noise & Health in 2019 published an article suggesting that blood lead levels in children above 50 milligrams per liter may be associated with an increased likelihood of hearing loss when compared to levels below 10 milligrams per liter.

In young adolescents, lead levels below the recommended levels caused hearing problems. Those with values above 2 micrograms per deciliter lost high-frequency hearing.

6. Growth and developmental problems

Research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reports that 15% of the children studied with detectable levels of lead in their blood during early childhood had growth retardation. In addition, they also showed difficulties in language development.

 A girl measuring her height.

How does diet influence lead contamination in children?

A study carried out in China and published in the journal Environment International suggests that diet was the main factor in lead exposure, contributing 86% of the values found in children. Even if a food doesn’t contain enough lead in its composition, the frequency of consumption may increase the values considerably.

The FDA establishes a category of foods according to the concentration of lead in foods for infants and young children, namely:

  • Fruits, vegetables, grain, and meat-based mixtures, puddings, custards, yogurts, and meats. These contribute 10 parts per million.
  • Root vegetables and cereals. These contribute 20 parts per million. Tap water is also considered a major source of lead.

Lead gets into food through fertilizers and irrigation water contaminated by residues from industries that use it. Roots, vegetables, and fruits are exposed to soil and can be considered a source of lead.

Animals tend to accumulate lead in the kidneys and liver. Therefore, offal and meat products should be omitted from the diet of children. Especially meats from wild game animals that have been shot with lead ammunition.

How do you detect lead contamination in children?

The National Center for Environmental Health reiterates that no level of lead has been identified that can be considered safe for children. Even low levels can have an effect on learning, behavior, growth, and development in the short and long term.

Fortunately, lead contamination can be prevented either by primary prevention – removing lead hazards from the environment – or by secondary prevention, by testing a child’s blood for lead. This is the safest way to detect contamination.

General tips regarding the effects of lead on children’s health

To protect children from lead exposure, the following is advised:

  • Remove lead from the home: It’s important to check the home for possible lead contamination, especially if it was built before 1978. Check drinking water and make safe renovations.
  • Ensure that products don’t contain lead: Eliminate toys and children’s products, ceramic dishes, and pottery glazed with lead, eliminate certain traditional medicines and cosmetics, and be cautious with food, including sweets and spices obtained from informal sources.
  • Take daily hygiene and health measures: Maintain a healthy and balanced diet, wash hands and toys, remove shoes before entering the house, and change clothes if working in areas at risk of contamination.

The effects of lead contamination on children’s health are so great that health agencies are focused on preventing it. At home, we can help by taking precautions so that children don’t come into contact with this metal.

One way is by maintaining hygiene measures, using safe products, supplying the home with lead-free water, avoiding foods that may contain lead, and maintaining a healthy and balanced diet for our children. The use of organic food can be a good option.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.