Invisible poison

Across America, under-testing of lead levels in children puts them at risk for prolonged lead poisoning. It affects their learning abilities and future job outcomes. Low-income families, especially people of color, are disproportionately affected by lead poisoning and therefore at an even greater disadvantage.


By Nikitha Sattiraju and Karishma Vanjani

Despite a drastic drop in childhood lead levels in the United States since the 70s, the toxin continues to silently poison many children. Close to 90,000 children tested positive for dangerous levels of lead in their blood in 2016, based on the latest available data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But that number isn’t  an accurate representation of the true extent of the problem.

This is because not every child between the ages of 1 and 2, the age group most vulnerable to lead poisoning, is tested to begin with. Only 10.4 percent of all children in the country were tested for the presence of lead in 2016. But testing is the only way to know if a child has been exposed to lead, said Kelly LaMonda, chief of Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at the Vermont Department of Health.

Even people who seem healthy can have high blood levels of lead,” LaMonda said. “Signs and symptoms usually don’t appear until dangerous amounts have accumulated.”

Children With Unsafe Blood Lead Levels in 2016


Lead, even in small amounts, can do long-term damage to children. Though the CDC defines blood lead levels greater than 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) as dangerous, experts say there is no safe blood lead level. It can lower children’s intelligence quotient (IQ), increase antisocial behavior and lead to anemia, hypertension and seizures. At very high levels, lead poisoning can also result in a coma or death.

And lead poisoning disproportionately affects low-income families — particularly minorities — who tend to live in older or badly maintained rental homes, said Spencer Wells, an organizer with the Cleveland Lead Safe Network.

At present, there is no uniform federal policy that requires universal testing of children between the ages 1 and 2 for lead poisoning. The CDC, which does not have the power to require testing from states, only recommends screening in communities where more than 12 percent of all children have high blood lead levels or where at least 27 percent of homes were built before 1950.

“It’s up to the individual states to make that [universal testing] a requirement,” said Dr. Stanley Schaffer, director of the Western New York Lead Poisoning Resource Center’s Rochester office. Only 10 states and the District of Columbia currently require universal testing.


There continues to be debate over universal versus targeted testing for lead among children in the country. Schaffer believes every child living in a geographical area where older housing is common should be tested in particular.

Dust from peeling lead paint, which is common in housing built before lead paint was banned in 1978, is the biggest cause of lead poisoning in children. But it isn’t the only source. The toxin can also enter children’s systems if they come in contact with lead-contaminated soil, air, water, foreign food or cosmetics.

Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.,  found that targeted testing isn’t entirely effective in identifying all children at risk of lead poisoning. Targeted testing usually relies on risk assessment questionnaires which, the study found, aren’t detailed enough to cover all potential sources of lead a child might have come in contact with.

But there are other barriers to children getting tested, besides weak enforcement of state policies. Most parents either don’t have the time to get their children tested or don’t think it’s important. Schaffer noted that parents wouldn’t even go downstairs to the lab in the same building as his clinic to get the tests done. However, testing rates went up once he trained his staff to collect samples during the visit. 

“Convenience for families is very, very important,” Schaffer said.