Despite measures to eliminate lead from the environment, babies and young children continue to be exposed to this toxic material. This puts children at risk for potential serious and lifelong complications.
Exposure to lead can cause serious damage to a child’s developing brain. Increased lead levels interfere with critical developmental processes in the central nervous system, although how this happens is not entirely clear. Imaging studies performed on children with high lead levels confirm that there is a reduction in the brain’s volume (size) and changes in the actual structure of the brain.
Most children with elevated lead levels do not have obvious symptoms. The nervous system effects are very subtle, and often go unrecognized by both parents and pediatricians. The most common finding is mild cognitive impairments, but this is often difficult to pick up, as it is best measured by IQ testing. Other children will experience developmental and/or behavioral problems. Some children will have hearing deficits, while others may experience difficulty with balance or even delayed growth.
Some research confirms that high blood levels of lead correlate to behavioral problems such as hyperactivity or inattention. Children have been found to be more disorganized, causing learning problems at school, including reading disabilities. One study even suggests children with high lead levels have a higher drop-out rate compared to their peers.
As lead levels become higher in the blood, children may complain of non-specific symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, or fatigue. They may also develop constipation and decreased appetite. When the levels become critically high, children will show signs of nervous system involvement, such as dizziness, clumsiness, agitation, and drowsiness that quickly progress to vomiting, seizures and loss of consciousness.
It is imperative that treatment be started immediately if lead poisoning is suspected to reduce the long-term neurological effects.
Lead can affect other parts of the body as well as the central nervous system. If the kidneys are affected, children can develop high blood pressure, even into adulthood. High lead levels also cause anemia, as the body is unable to use available iron stores.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, May 2020
- Elevated lead levels can have wide-ranging effects in toddlers and children.
- Lead poisoning can affect brain size and structure.
- Children with lead poisoning may have cognitive and developmental problems.
- Symptoms can be subtle and are often missed by doctors and parents.