New Jersey Environmental Public Health Tracking Program

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Lead Exposure in Children

What is Lead?

Lead is a poisonous metal that can damage nervous connections (especially in young children) and cause blood and brain disorders. Because of its low reactivity and solubility, lead poisoning usually only occurs in cases when the lead is dispersed, like when sanding lead based paint, or long term exposure in the case of pewter tableware.  While lead can affect almost every organ and system in the body, the main target for lead toxicity is the nervous system, both in adults and children.

Lead Exposure in ChildrenLead can be found in all parts of our environment. Lead has been used in a variety of ways including in paints, gasoline, and some vinyl products, such as mini-blinds. It is used in the production of batteries, ammunition, metal products (solder and pipes), and devices to shield X-rays.  Because of health concerns, lead from paints and ceramic products, caulking, and pipe solder has been dramatically reduced.  Lead-based paints were banned for use in housing in 1978. The use of lead as an additive to gasoline was also banned in the United States. However, lead can still be found in our environment and people, especially children, are still being exposed. 

Today, the main source of childhood lead exposure is lead-based paint in older homes. Twenty-four million housing units in the United States have peeling or chipping lead-based paint and may have high levels of lead-contaminated house dust. More than 4 million of these dwellings are homes for one or more young children.

How Does Lead Exposure Affect Human Health?

Lead has been shown to harm the developing human nervous system.  Lead exposure can permanently reduce the cognitive capacity of children, even at low levels of exposure.  High blood lead levels are also associated with delayed puberty in girls. 

Childhood lead poisoning is a preventable health problem.  Before the use of lead was restricted, approximately 88% of preschool children in the United States had levels of lead in their blood high enough to cause serious health effects. With less lead in our environment, lead poisonings have decreased and become less severe. However, lead poisoning still occurs. Approximately 310,000 U.S. children aged 1 to 5 years have blood lead levels greater than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, the level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.

Lead exposure is measured by a blood test.  The amount of lead circulating in the blood is an indication of how much lead has been taken into the body in the previous few months.  Current state regulations, which conform to guidelines by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), require health care providers to do a blood lead test on all one- and two-year old children. 

What is Being Done to Protect Children’s Health?

Lead was removed from gasoline in the United States in the late 1970's. This action is credited with reducing the level of lead in the air, and thereby the amount of lead inhaled by children.  However, significant amounts of lead remain in the environment where it poses a threat to children.  The New Jersey Department of Health (NJ DOH) maintains a Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (CLPPP). This program has a surveillance system that collects information from laboratories regarding the results of blood lead tests performed on children in New Jersey, identifies children with elevated test results, and notifies local health departments regarding children with elevated blood lead tests who reside in their jurisdiction.

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