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For Your Child

December 2013

Behavioral Problems Linked to Toxic Lead

As every parent knows, your little angel can sometimes be bad. But if a young child has serious behavioral problems, it may be a sign of lead poisoning. A recent study found lead’s toxic effects may not just be physical.

Exposing harmful lead

A naturally occurring metal, lead is scattered all around us in small amounts. It’s in the air, soil, and water. We’ve used it in manufacturing for decades. But recent concerns about lead poisoning have curbed its industrial appeal. In fact, it’s no longer allowed in paint, ceramics, and gasoline, among other consumer products.

Lead at any level can be dangerous, especially for children. Past research has linked lead to kidney damage and nervous system problems. Children exposed to high levels of lead may suffer from stomachaches, muscle weakness, and even brain damage. It can also stunt a child’s physical and mental development. One past study even connected lead exposure with lower test scores.

In the journal Environmental Research, scientists recently found another potential side effect of lead: bad behavior. They gathered the blood lead levels of more than 3,700 children living in Milwaukee, Wis. They then compared those levels with the children’s school records. Children exposed to lead before age 3 had more behavioral problems in the 4th grade. In particular, they were 3 times more likely to be suspended.

Preventing lead poisoning

According to the latest estimates from the CDC, more than 500,000 American children are exposed to lead. A disproportionate amount includes ethnic minorities and the poor. The good news: Greater awareness about lead has slashed exposure considerably over the last 30 years.

You can help protect your child from lead poisoning by following these measures:

  • Have your home tested for lead-based paint, particularly if it was built before 1978, when such paint was banned. The problem: As lead-based paint breaks down over time, it can chip or shed. Children eating paint chips, mouthing painted surfaces, or inhaling lead-contaminated dust are at serious risk for lead poisoning. It’s best to repair and repaint lead-suspected surfaces.

  • Regularly clean your home. Doing so will help keep household dust under control. Mop floors and wipe down window sills with a wet cloth.

  • Don’t let children play in bare dirt. Lead particles can hide in soil.

  • Keep your child’s hands and toys clean. It will help prevent lead poisoning from dust or dirt.

  • Check that toy jewelry and painted toys are lead free. If you aren’t sure, discard them.

  • Test your drinking water. Lead can leach into the water supply through corroded lead pipes or fixtures.

Concerned about your child’s possible lead exposure? Talk with your child’s doctor about a lead poisoning screening. This article explains the test.

Behavioral Problems May Also Stem from Soft Drinks

Soda isn't as harmful as lead. But it, too, may cause behavioral problems. A recent study of more than 2,900 5-year-olds found those who drank more soft drinks tended to be more aggressive. For instance, they destroyed property and participated in fights. These same children were also more likely to be withdrawn and inattentive. 


Online resources

CDC - Lead

Environmental Protection Agency - Lead

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