Skip to main content

Oregon State Flag An official website of the State of Oregon » Homepage

Health Effects of Lead Exposure

How does lead exposure affect children?

  • Brain damage and lower intelligence
  • Behavior and learning problems
  • Hyperactivity
  • Impaired speech and language
  • Slowed growth
  • Kidney and liver damage
  • Hearing damage

Get the facts

Lead is a poison that affects every organ and system in the body. Young children are especially at risk for lead poisoning because lead can slow growth and development. The effects of lead on a child can be permanent and irreversible. Even small amounts of lead can be harmful.

What are the signs of lead exposure?

Signs of lead poisoning are not always easy to see. Children can be poisoned by lead and may not look or act sick. Many children who are lead poisoned look and act healthy. Sometimes the vague symptoms may be mistaken for other illnesses such as stomach upset or flu. Because of this, lead poisoning may go unrecognized. A blood lead test is the only way to find out if a child has lead poisoning.

Possible signs and symptoms of lead poisoning in children are:

  • Tiredness or loss of energy
  • Hyperactivity
  • Irritability or crankiness
  • Reduced attention span
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Reduced attention span
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Constipation
  • Aches or pains in stomach

How are children exposed to lead?

Children can get lead poisoning by swallowing dust that contains lead. When it is absorbed, it affects almost every body system.  Most children are exposed to lead from dust containing lead from lead-based paint. Prior to 1978, and especially before 1950, lead was a common additive to paint.

The most prevalent lead hazards in schools and child care facilities are lead-based paint, lead dust and contaminated soil. If not performed correctly, renovation, repair and maintenance of older schools and child care facilities can create hazardous lead dust and debris by disturbing lead-based paint. Reducing or preventing exposure to environmental hazards in schools and child care facilities is important since children spend a significant portion of their day in school and child care facilities and are more vulnerable to the effects of environmental exposures.

Who can get lead poisoning?

Anyone can get lead poisoning. However, lead is most dangerous to young and unborn children because their bodies and brains are still growing and developing. Young children are more at risk for exposure to lead because children explore their environment by putting their toys, hand and other objects in their mouths. Any of these objects could have lead dust on them. If children put objects with lead dust in their mouths, they can become lead poisoned. In addition, they spend a lot of time on the floor where sources of lead are likely to be found. Young children also absorb more lead than adults. Lead poisoned children may suffer life-long problems as a result of their exposure at a young age.