Lead toxicity’s harmful effects on childhood development

Lead toxicity’s harmful effects on childhood development

Lead toxicity has many harmful side effects on the body including adverse neurological effects. Although adults are at risk of lead poisoning through occupational exposure, children are at risk for developmental and mental delays if exposed to high levels of lead.

Mental effects

Adverse developmental and mental reactions resulting from lead toxicity in children include:

  • Poor academic performance due to learning disabilities
  • Speech delay
  • Aggressive behaviors
  • Fine and gross motor delays
  • Behavioral problems resulting in poor social relationships

These symptoms vary and range on a spectrum which depends on the lead exposure history such as the intensity, chronicity and age at exposure, combined with other contributing risk factors, including nutrition and environmental stimulation.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital, children who have been exposed to elevated levels of lead (greater than 10 micrograms per deciliter) are at increased risk for cognitive and behavioral problems during development.

Lead toxicity affects more than the mind. Although there are no signs or symptoms that specifically point to lead poisoning, initial diagnosis relies heavily on the person’s history.

Physical effects

Physical symptoms associated with lead poisoning include:

  • Gastrointestinal nonspecific complaints such as vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps
  • Decreased growth in height
  • Increased dental caries
  • Delay in sexual maturation

Lead poisoning also causes anemia. Signs and symptoms of anemia are generally nonspecific and include fatigue, weakness and dizziness.

Risk factors

Because these symptoms are ubiquitous for many diseases, it is important to recognize the risk factors for lead poisoning in children.

The CDC and the American Academy of Family Practice recognize the following as risk factors for lead poisoning:

  • All Medicaid-enrolled or -eligible children at 1 and 2 years of age
  • All refugees, recent immigrants and international adoptees
  • Children who live in a high-risk zip code denoted by the CDC
  • Children who reside or regularly visit a building that was built before 1950 or that was built before 1978 and is undergoing renovations
  • Children who have siblings or playmates with lead poisoning

Screening and diagnosis

Because most children with elevated blood lead levels are asymptomatic, the decision for routine screening should not be based on signs or symptoms of lead poisoning, but rather on the presence of the above risk factors. Screening should begin at 1 year of age and should be repeated at 2 years of age. Recent immigrants should be screened immediately after they enter the United States.

A venous blood sample is the gold standard for diagnosing lead poisoning; a finger-stick is acceptable but should be confirmed with a venous sample if the lead level is elevated. The recent lead poisoning outbreak in Flint, Michigan, demonstrates the importance of lead screening. “There is no safe level of lead,” said Eden Wells, M.D., the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ chief medical executive.

For more information on lead’s harmful effects on the body, how to prevent toxicity, and how lead poisoning is diagnosed and treated, look for more blogs in this series. If you think you or a child you know has been exposed to lead, seek medical help.

If you or someone you know is dealing with a behavioral health disorder, a mental illness, an addiction or a co-occurring condition, the Dual Diagnosis Helpline might be able to help. Call anytime 24/7 the toll-free number, 855-981-6047.