Effects of Lead

Lead is a toxic element found in the Earth. Unlike minerals and vitamins, lead serves no purpose in our bodies. Lead can be in the air, food, water, and soil. Lead is sometimes found in many products we use, such as glassware, jewelry, toys, and cosmetics.

Lead poisoning is silent. Children often do not look or act sick. When symptoms do appear, they are often confused with other illnesses or conditions. Some symptoms of lead poisoning in children include:

  • Irritability
  • Fatigue 
  • Belly pain 
  • Constipation
  • Hearing loss 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Weight loss 
  • Vomiting 
  • Trouble concentrating 
  • Headaches 
  • Behavioral problems 

There is no ‘safe’ level of lead. Even low levels of lead can affect a child’s health.

At low levels, lead can cause behavioral problems. Low levels of lead can affect a child's brain and central nervous system.

At high levels, lead can cause permanent damage to the brain and nervous system. This damage can lead to seizures, loss of muscle control, and coma.

Lead exposure can interrupt a child's progress as they grow. The most common health effects are:  

Developmental Delays

Executive Function

Executive function is a set of mental skills that help us learn, work, and manage our lives. These skills include

  • planning
  • starting and finishing tasks
  • controlling our emotion

We learn and use these skills in childhood, and we develop them as we grow. Lead poisoning can slow a child's development of these skills. Children with lead poisoning have a hard time starting and finishing tasks, have trouble paying attention, or may be more prone to emotional outbursts. These effects persist even after a child is lead-free. It does not take a high level of lead for these effects to happen. 

Speech and Language

Blood lead levels affect how children learn and process language. Low levels of lead can begin to affect a child’s hearing, which impacts their ability to process language. Decreased hearing can also affect how a child does in school. 

Motor Skills

As children grow, they learn to move and walk steadily on their feet. Children with high lead levels are at risk for poor muscle control and trouble with fine-motor actions.

Learning Disabilities


Lead exposure and IQ are related: as blood lead level increases, a child’s IQ decreases. Even low levels of lead can affect a child’s IQ. 


Children exposed to lead are more likely to be distracted, inattentive, and impulsive.

Sound familiar? These symptoms are shared with attention-deficit disorder (ADHD). A child can be misdiagnosed for ADHD instead of lead poisoning. Ask your provider for a blood lead test.