Lead poisoning is caused by breathing or swallowing lead. Protecting children from exposure to lead is important to lifelong good health and school readiness.
Children under the age of 6 are at risk for lead poisoning because they are growing and developing so rapidly. Also, they tend to put their hands or other objects into their mouths. This can be a problem if whatever goes in the mouth is contaminated with lead dust.
Children at higher risk for lead exposure often have at least one of the following characteristics:
- They are members of racial or ethnic minority groups.
- Their families recently immigrated into the country.
- They have parents who are exposed to lead at work.
- They live in older, poorly maintained rental properties or areas with outdated plumbing.
- Their families are low-income.
How Lead Poisoning Hurts Children
Lead can affect almost every organ and system in a child’s body. Lead poisoning cannot be reversed or undone.
There is no safe blood lead level for children. A young child with lead poisoning may not develop new skills at the same speed as other children. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect a child’s intelligence quotient (IQ), attention span, and academic achievement. Low levels of lead in the blood of children can also result in:
- Behavior and learning problems
- Hearing problems
- Attention deficit disorders as they get older
- Slowed physical growth
Preventing Lead Exposure
Head Start programs have a major role in preventing children’s exposure to lead. This includes preventing lead exposure in the Head Start facility and its water supply and working with the wider community to reduce lead exposure in other locations.
Families are an important line of defense against lead poisoning in their children. It’s important to share information with families to help them understand the dangers of lead exposure and how to prevent it.
Screening for Lead Exposure
A lead screening measures the amount of lead in the blood and determines a child’s risk for poisoning. Head Start programs must work with parents to ensure all enrolled children are screened for blood lead levels. Lead screening is included in states’ Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnostic and Testing (EPSDT) schedule.
Lead screening is required by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) for all Medicaid-eligible children. Ask your Health Services Advisory Committee to organize outreach to community providers or identify alternative providers of blood level lead screening services.
Children can also be screened for developmental delays that might be a sign of lead poisoning. Early identification of affected children allows for early treatment and supportive services.
Learn More About Lead Poisoning Prevention
Watch this video series to learn more about lead exposure in young children and how Head Start programs can test their water for lead. Find other useful resources on the ECLKC or in the lists, grouped by topic, below.
Facts for Families
Know the Facts
Health managers and program staff are encouraged to share with families this basic flyer produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Prevent Lead Poisoning During Pregnancy
Lead can pass from the expectant parent to the unborn baby through the blood. Head Start staff can share this CDC resource with expectant parents so they are alerted to the dangers and learn how to protect themselves and their baby.
This CMS page explains its universal blood lead screening requirements for Medicaid-eligible children.
Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention: State and Local Programs
Explore this CDC resource to learn about specific state or local area programs that support housing-related childhood lead poisoning prevention efforts.
Keeping Lead out of Drinking Water
Basic Information About Lead in Drinking Water
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides general information on lead in drinking water and what programs and families can do to ensure the water their families drink is safe.
3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water
EPA offers information and recommendations that schools, child care facilities, and states can use to reduce lead levels in drinking water.
Find your Local Consumer Confidence Reports
EPA requires all community water systems to prepare and deliver an annual water quality report (called a Consumer Confidence Report, CCR) for their customers by July 1 of each year. Use this web page to obtain your local CCR.
Health Department Directories
If your water comes from a household well or other private water supply, use this CDC directory to find your local health department for information on contaminants of concern in the ground water your area.
Other Protective Measures
Fight Lead Poisoning with a Healthy Diet
The EPA provides meal and snack ideas that provide the nutrients — calcium, iron and vitamin C — that can help the body absorb less lead.
A Healthy Home for Everyone
This CDC guide describes the many home hazards, such as peeling paint that contains lead, that can affect the health of the people living inside. The guide includes tips for clearing up each type of hazard.
Protect Your Family from Exposures to Lead
Lead from paint and dust can be dangerous if not managed properly. This EPA resource provides information about potential sources of lead in the environment.
Resource Type: Article
National Centers: Health, Behavioral Health, and Safety
Last Updated: January 12, 2024