Impact of Lead Exposure in Very Young Children

boy drinking milk

By Marco Beltran, Katherine Beckmann, and Alana Buroff

We can agree the health and well-being of our children is of vital importance. As adults, the responsibility falls on us to protect our little ones from environmental hazards of which we have been made aware. One such health threat that has recently made headlines is exposure to lead from outdated pipes in some municipal water systems. The impact of lead toxicity on the health and safety of children has been alarming for parents who work hard to keep their children safe and on a path to reach their fullest potential.

Lead exposure can cause a myriad of problems for growing children, including lower intelligence quotient (IQ) levels. Hearing loss, reduced attention span, learning disabilities, and even death can occur. As the recent situation in Flint, MI has shown us, health emergencies can be unexpected and require a public health approach to address the needs of the community. An estimated 10 million Americans get their drinking water from pipes that are at least partially lead. Children are especially vulnerable to the dangers of lead toxicity.

Lead poisoning itself is preventable. The sources of lead can and should be identified before children are harmed. It is important to understand that children at higher risk for lead exposure often fall into at least one of the following groups:

  • Low-income
  • Members of racial or ethnic minority groups
  • Recent immigrants
  • Have parents who are exposed to lead at work
  • Live in older, poorly maintained rental properties or areas with outdated plumbing

As early childhood educators, we see firsthand the mental and physical effects of lead on child development. Early childhood education certainly helps to lessen the possible effects of lead exposure. However, we highly encourage testing for possible lead exposure. Getting our children tested for lead exposure now will help assure that they are well on the path to leading a full, healthy, and thriving existence. Failing to screen children for blood lead levels has implications for young children all across America. Children's bodies absorb lead more quickly and efficiently than adults. If you are concerned about lead exposure in your children, you should immediately consult your pediatrician or family primary health care provider.

Lead exposure prevention, and remediation to counter the cognitive and behavioral challenges associated with lead exposure, should be a priority for all of us, as parents, as early childhood providers, and as educators. It is our duty to ensure our youngest generation can flourish and prosper into and beyond adulthood. The time to act is now!

Marco Beltran, DrPH, is a Senior Program Specialist for the Office of Head Start; Katherine Beckman, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a Senior Policy Advisor for Early Childhood Health at the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary and Interdepartmental Liaison for Early Childhood; and Alana Buroff is a Program Specialist for the Office of Head Start.