Over Half of U.S. Children Have Detectable Levels of Lead in Their Blood

Child jumping into father's arms.

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study finds that 50% of American children under the age of 6 have detectable levels of lead in their blood.
  • No level of lead exposure is considered safe.
  • Children living in low-income communities are at a higher risk for lead toxicity.

Despite aggressive efforts by the United States to eliminate exposure to lead over the last 40 years, a recent study discovered that one in two children living in America has detectable levels of lead in their blood.

This new research suggests that current U.S. policies are not eradicating enough lead from our infrastructure and environment to keep children safe.

The study, conducted in partnership between Quest Diagnostics and Boston Children’s Hospital, included over one million lead blood tests from all 50 states administered to children under the age of 5 between 2018 and 2020.

Researchers concluded that 50% of American children have been exposed to lead in the first years of their life—leaving many vulnerable to the irreversible neurological effects that this neurotoxin can trigger when it lingers in our bloodstream.

“We have made great progress since the 1970s by outlawing lead in gasoline and house paint,” Harvey W. Kaufman, MD, senior medical director and head of the Health Trends Research Program at Quest Diagnostics, tells Verywell. “But the story is not over yet. We still have progress to make.”

The September study was published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

What Lead Does to The Body

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and healthcare professionals stress that there is no safe amount of lead exposure. Any traces of lead found in a child’s body can be extremely dangerous. 

“There is no safe lead level, and none should be considered normal," Amina Ahmed, MD, a pediatrician at Stanford Children’s Health, tells Verywell.

Children under the age of 6 in the rapid development and growth stage often place objects in their mouth that could contain lead, making them a high-risk population for toxicity. 

These vulnerabilities leave them susceptible to permanent neurological damage as lead can inhibit critical pathways of the brain from growing and developing normally. Long-term side effects of lead disruption in a child vary.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that at the highest levels, lead exposure leads to brain and central nervous damage, "causing coma, convulsions, and even death. Less severe side effects, according to the WHO, include:

  • Lower IQ
  • Attention deficits
  • Increased anti-social behavior 
  • Reduced educational attainment
  • Anemia
  • Hypertension
  • Renal impairment
  • Immunotoxicity and toxicity to reproductive disorders

Ahmed says lead exposure can cause different symptoms in children, depending on how much they've been in contact with:

  • Children with mild elevations of blood lead levels may be asymptomatic except for decreased learning, decreased memory, and lowered IQ
  • Children with moderate elevations (> 40mcg/dL) may present with abdominal pain, constipation, headaches, irritability, difficulty concentrating, anemia, fatigue, and weight loss
  • Blood Lead levels >100mcg/dL are associated with encephalopathy, coma, and death

The good news is that lead exposure for children is 100% preventable and the U.S. has taken extensive measures to reduce the amounts of lead in both our infrastructure and environment. 

Since declaring it a public health risk in the 1970s, the U.S. began reducing the amount of lead allowed in gasoline, drinking water, toxic substances, and house paint.

What Causes Lead Exposure?

The CDC has pinpointed the most common causes of lead exposure for children to include:

  • Homes built before 1978
  • Older water pipes
  • Lead can still be found in some toys, jewelry, and pottery
  • Imported candies, home remedies, and spices
  • High-risk jobs such as construction 
  • Living near airports or major freeways
  • Contaminated soil and water

Zip Codes Determine Risk

For many Americans living at or below the poverty line, a lack of available resources may make removing lead from their house, or moving to a new location unrealistic, leaving their small children vulnerable to their surroundings. 

Not only did the recent study analyze lead blood tests from children across the country, but it also broke down results by zip code. 

Data results showed that children living in high poverty communities were twice as likely to have elevated blood lead levels than those living in low poverty areas. The high poverty communities are predominantly Black non-Hispanic and Hispanic populations living in pre-1950s housing that has not been updated to eliminate lead.

Children receiving public assistance, such as Medicaid, were also 50% more likely to have elevated lead levels compared to children on private medical insurance plans.

“Unfortunately, it is true that some children are at a greater risk for elevated blood lead levels than others,” Ahmed says. “The risk factors may be due to age of the home in some communities, proximity to major roads, freeways, or an industrial facility that historically emitted or currently emits lead. Hence, all children living in such communities are at risk of elevated blood lead levels.” 

Why Lead is Still an Issue

Because regulations on lead exposure differ by state, some areas of the country still have a lot of work to do to keep their children safe from the dangers of lead.

By analyzing data results by zip code, researchers were able to also isolate six states that had more than double the national rate of elevated blood lead levels in their child populations including:

  • Nebraska (6.0%)
  • Ohio (5.2%)
  • Pennsylvania (5.0%)
  • Missouri (4.5%)
  • Michigan (4.5%)
  • Wisconsin (4.3%)

“Over one-fifth of all U.S. homes are older and still have lead in them,” Kaufman said. “There are also still 9 million lead pipes that are still being used.”

President Joe Biden has addressed the need for clean drinking water across America by proposing an infrastructure bill that would invest $55 billion to replace all of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines.

What This Means For You

Because lead is odorless and tasteless, some states provide free lead testing kits. To check whether your state provides a testing kit, visit your state’s Department of Environmental Protection. 

What You Can Do

Prevention and education are the best tools available to help combat lead exposure in American children. The CDC suggests you:

  • Test your home for lead if it was built before 1978
  • Be mindful that some toys, candies, and pottery can contain lead
  • Remove soiled work clothes before entering the house
  • Test your soil and tap water for lead
  • Keep children away from lead paint and dust
  • Home repairs and remodeling can create dangerous dust

You can also talk to your child's doctor about lead exposure risk to learn more.

“As pediatricians, we take the opportunity to educate our families on lead poisoning and the harmful effects of elevated lead levels on brain development,” Ahmed said. “These discussions are part of the regular well-child visits starting at 6 months of age till 6 years of age. We perform lead screening, including questions to identify children who are at risk for elevated blood lead levels.”

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Dignam T, Kaufmann RB, LeStourgeon L, Brown MJ. Control of lead sources in the united states: public health progress and current challenges to eliminating lead exposure. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice. 2019;25(1):S13-S22. doi. 10.1097/PHH.0000000000000889.

  2. Hauptman M, Niles J, Gudin J, Kaufman H. Individual- and Community-Level Factors Associated With Detectable and Elevated Blood Lead Levels in US Children. JAMA Pediatrics. 2021. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.3518,

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health Effects of Lead Exposure.

  4. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Lead Laws and Regulations.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sources of Lead Exposure.

  6. Quest Diagnostics. Press Release. Over Half of U.S. children have detectable levels of lead in their blood, finds Quest Diagnostics Health Trends® Study.

  7. The White House. Fact sheet: The bipartisan infrastructure investment and jobs act advances president Biden's agenda.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lead poisoning: Know the facts.

By Amy Isler, RN, MSN, CSN
Amy Isler, RN, MSN, CSN, is a registered nurse with over six years of patient experience. She is a credentialed school nurse in California.