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Effects of Lead Exposure on Cognitive Development of Children

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Lead is a very toxic heavy metal for both the environment and human beings. It leads to nerve poisoning and can even destroy various functions related to the nervous system. Lead poisoning is the result of increased lead levels in the human body. When lead enters in your body in excess, it may start interfering with body functions. 

Hence, it’s highly toxic to various tissues and organs, including the central nervous system. It is considered highly toxic to children, as it can cause permanent cognitive and neural impairment in them. 

In this article, we share with you the details of lead poisoning in children and how it even impacts their neurological behavioral, cognitive development and intellectual capabilities. 

What are the sources of lead exposure in children? 

Here are some common sources of lead poisoning in children:


Lead is found in some painted toys. While companies are mandated to follow a permissible lead level to paint children’s toys, many companies don’t follow the limit. And, those lead-containing toys may expose kids to poisoning. 

Environmental sources

Here are some environmental sources that cause lead poisoning:

  • Paint. Lead-based household paints are still sold in various countries. These can cause lead poisoning.
  • Dust. Even household dust may include lead particles coming from certain deteriorating lead-based paint, dust brought through your or your pet’s feet, or contaminated soil.
  • Water. Some old household pipes were soldered with lead. And, those pipes used to or still are one of the common causes of increased lead levels in the water.
  • Soil. Soil may get contaminated by lead through deteriorating lead-based paint and thorugh mining or industrial activities.

Exposure prone activities

Give below are some exposure-prone activities leading to lead exposure among kids:

  • Renovation of houses built before 1970.
  • Occupations, like smelting and mining.
  • Hobbies – people may take lead residues to their homes through their skin, clothes, equipment, and hair after coming in contact with lead in their work environment. Such lead exposing items in various work industries include stained-glass, glazed pottery, and making fishing sinkers. 

Why are children at greater risk of lead exposure?

Children are at higher risk of permanent damage to their brain and impairment of intellectual development due to lead exposure. In kids, this risk of lead exposure depends on their surrounding environment, behaviors, and stage of development. 

Children less than five years of age are at higher risk of lead exposure because:

  • They retain and absorb a higher amount of lead from the airways and gut than adults. 
  • They often put their hands on various objects and then put them in their mouth. 
  • Their growing brains are highly sensitive to lead effects. 
  • Kids with pica (a behavior leading to constantly eating non-food substances, like paint flakes, peeling, small objects, or soil) are at higher risk of lead exposure. 

Kids are highly vulnerable to lead exposure during home renovations or redecoration. It is because they may start picking up or eating dust or swallowing paint chips. 

Even unborn babies are at higher risk, as lead swallowed by a pregnant lady can pass through the placenta. Plus, breastfeeding mothers are also likely to pass lead to newborn babies through breast milk. 

Symptoms of lead poisoning in children and newborns 

The health impact of lead exposure is very harmful to kids less than 6 years of age. It is because their bodies are growing and developing at this stage. Young kids are likely to put their hands or various objects in their mouths. This is what leads to further lead contamination with lead dust. So, they are more likely to face more exposure to lead than older children. 

Due to lead exposure, they are likely to experience various health conditions. However, some children don’t see any symptoms at all. 

Acute lead poisoning is the result of recent lead exposure to a high amount of lead. Some of its symptoms are: 

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle pains
  • Headache
  • Coma
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pains
  • Seizures

If a child gets exposed to lead in small amounts for a longer duration, it caused chronic lead exposure that produces symptoms, like: 

  • Lack of energy 
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Behavioural problems
  • Impaired growth
  • Learning difficulties
  • Poor coordination
  • Poor school performance

Most of these symptoms are also the result of some other conditions. So, it’s essential to consult a doctor if you are stressed over any of these symptoms. 

Effects of lead poisoning on cognitive development of children

Lead exposure is quite common but preventable in children. According to data collected from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), around 6% of children between the ages of 1–2 years and around 11% of non-Hispanic children between the ages of 1-5 years have higher lead levels in their blood. These levels are in the toxic range. 

Lead is a potent substance that may impact people at any age. But children with developing bodies are quite vulnerable due to their still-growing nervous systems. Plus, their nervous systems are quite sensitive to lead effects. 

Almost all kids in the US are somehow exposed to lead in some or the other way. Certain common sources that cause lead poisoning are lead paint and lead-contaminated water and soil. Some children can also swallow or eat paint chips, which are likely to increase the risk of lead exposure. 

Due to lead exposure, children are likely to face various adverse effects on their behavior and development. Even small amounts of lead exposure can make children less attentive, irritable, and hyperactive. Children with higher levels of lead exposure are likely to face issues, like delayed growth, reading, learning, and hearing loss. At high levels, exposure to lead may even cause permanent brain damage or get fatal.  

Early detection and treatment of lead toxicity may reduce the risk that children may suffer permanently. Treatment often begins with the elimination of the sources that may cause lead poisoning in children. Plus, medications may also eliminate lead from their body. 

What parents can do to prevent (or lower) the risk of lead exposure

Here are some suggestions to reduce lead exposure in children: 

Behavior change to reduce the potential of lead exposure in children, such as:

  • Regularly washing family pets and kids’ toys
  • Frequently washing children’s hands
  • Removing imported toys from kids’ rooms, as they may contain lead
  • Regularly washing or mopping stairs, flooring, and window sills for reducing dust
  • Creating safe environment
  • House renovation – taking care of houses built before 1970
  • Pregnant women and young kids must not be present during the removal of lead-based paint.
  • Keep kids away from bare soil and keep kids out of the dirt.
  • When removing old paint, make sure you don’t allow your children near the place.
  • Consult water suppliers or council environmental health caretaker if you’re suspicious of lead content in drinking water.
  • Avoid storing food in lead crystal, pewter, or glazed pottery containers.

Dietary changes 

Children deficient in calcium, iron, vitamin C, etc. are highly vulnerable to lead exposure. With an iron-rich diet, there’s less absorption of lead in children. Calcium combats lead and may inhibit its absorption in children. Even vitamin C is helpful, as it increases excretion from kidneys. 

Recent findings on the effects of lead exposure on children

In 2016, American lead issues were exposed with a scandal in Flint, Michigan. It was observed that around 3-percent of children were suffering from lead poisoning after the city switched to a cheaper water source. At that time, Philadelphia was one of the 17 cities in Pennsylvania with around 10% to 23% of children with lead poisoning.  According to a state investigation, there were dangerous levels of lead in around 67 Pennsylvanian counties. And, the common cause for that was Lead based paint. 

Lead paint was banned in 1978 by the federal government. But in Philadelphia, around 90% of the existing housing stock was constructed before this ban. The city lawmakers passed a rule for lead disclosure in 2012. As per this rule, the landlords with properties constructed before 1978 had to offer lead certificates to tenants with kids (under seven) to assure that their property is safe for moving in. 

Now, after years of protests and campaigning by child advocates, many improvements are made to the law. From October 2020, all public and private housing rentals need to obtain lead-safe certification. Even drinking water needs to be tested from time to time to assure water levels are safe to drink.

Ellen Diamond did her degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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