Concerned about your child being exposed to lead? The following information should answer just about every question parents have about lead exposure and lead poisoning in children.

Safe levels of lead exposure in children

The American Academy of Pediatrics maintains that there is no safe level of lead in the bloodstream. The CDC recently lowered its official level for concern from 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to 5–a standard pediatricians had already used for years based on the research. Children with blood levels above this threshold (around half a million kids) are recommended for treatment.

However, it should be emphasized that NO amount of lead has been found to be safe, and there have been studies linking possible health risks to exposure well below this 5 micrograms per deciliter level. Lead poisoning researcher Bruce Lanphear says that the average child should have a blood lead level of 1 or less, although this may not be realistic for kids living in older homes with deteriorating paint or those in areas where high lead contamination occurs.

How much lead does it take to be harmful?

The problem is that even trace amounts of lead are enough to cause irreversible health problems in kids who ingest or inhale them. Particles are so tiny they are barely visible, and yet swallowing a mere 6 micrograms of lead particles a day over a period of three months is enough to raise a child’s blood level by one point.

To give you an idea of how minute this exposure actually is, imagine a packet of artificial sweetener that you put in your coffee. That packet contains 1 gram of powder. Divide that packet into a million pieces, and you get a microgram (one-millionth of a gram). It’s so minute that “just touching the surface (of the soil), you get enough to make a difference in exposure,” says Howard Mielke, a soil sampling expert with Tulane University. (Young & Eisler, 2012, p. 6A)

Unfortunately, children also absorb a higher percentage of any lead they are exposed to, and a child’s body is less efficient at disposing of the lead they come into contact with. So whereas adults only retain about 10% of the lead in their environment, children retain 50%. (Morrison, Heath & Jervis, 2008)

How children are exposed to lead

According to studies done by Bruce Lamphear, a leading expert on childhood lead poisoning, about 30% of the average child’s lead exposure comes from contaminated soil. Another 30% or so comes from contaminated house dust (which includes flaking paint), and about 20% from water. However, it’s important to note that a child’s own lead exposure can be very individualized according to their environment. Some children who live in a house next to an old factory might get 80% of their exposure from dirt, whereas a child in an old house may get most of their exposure from flaking paint. (Young, 2012)

A study conducted by Mielke several years ago found that children’s hands pick up high levels of lead in their everyday play. Testing children at day care centers throughout inner-city New Orleans neighorhoods, they found that kids come back with up to 30 micrograms on their hands following an outdoor play session. (Young & Eisler, 2012) Which is why hand-washing can be so important in high-risk areas. When a child licks their hands, as young children often do, they can ingest this lead. It’s also easily inhaled when a child rubs their nose or otherwise touches their face.

Children at risk for lead exposure

As a general rule, younger children are more vulnerable to lead exposure, both because of their mannerisms (lots of hand to mouth) and because of their size. So children under 6 are at the greatest risk in terms of amount of exposure. Yet other recent studies have found that lead exposures for early school-age kids can be just as harmful – and potentially even more harmful – than the same exposure in toddlers. (Raloff, 2009)

Children in urban areas, those living in older homes, and those children living near major roadways or industrial plants are especially at risk. Kids in these situations are more likely to be exposed to lead at higher levels. Therefore parents and teachers should pay close attention and take steps to prevent lead poisoning.