Tip sheet: Covering the ongoing problem of lead contamination


screenshot of CDC graphic
Screenshot of CDC graphic captured Aug. 7, 2023. Public domain

There are about half a million children in the U.S. with high levels of lead in their blood, according to the CDC. Those at highest risk include children in low-income households and those who live in homes built before lead-based paint was banned in 1978. 

Lead is a toxic natural metal that was historically used in pipes, faucets and plumbing fixtures in addition to products like paint and gasoline. It is also often used in industrial facilities. Lead mostly enters the body through ingestion, and it builds up over time. It is most dangerous for children, especially those younger than 6 who are more likely to put things in their mouth.

According to the CDC, which keeps a database of childhood blood lead levels, there is no safe blood lead level for children. Even low-level exposure can affect learning, development and behavior and cause neurological damage. The reference value for lead is 3.5 micrograms per deciliter for children.

How do people get exposed to lead?

lead exposure in children infographic
Graphic by CDC | Public domain

Lead issues are not new, but they are prevalent. Exposure looks different across the country, with some neighborhoods heavily impacted by air pollution while in other places, residents may be ingesting lead through drinking water. But the health effects are the same. 

The largest contributors to high blood lead levels are chipped or peeling paint in homes built before 1978, water from lead pipes, soil that has been contaminated through industry or highway pollution, imported candy and toys and certain types of jobs.

The main culprits are:

Soil: Lead in soil is still a predominant exposure source for children, especially from industrial sources. Entire neighborhoods have been contaminated, and state and local governments are trying to clean up with little success. Lead in paint from the exterior of homes is also an issue because the lead dust is absorbed into the soil or breathed in by residents.

Water: Lead pipes, faucets and plumbing made before 1986 are among the most ubiquitous ways people can be exposed to lead. Some cities are trying to update corroded and lead pipes; Denver is spending $130 million to replace 140,000 feet of pipe by 2026.  Lead in pipes has also been a challenge for school districts. In Los Angeles, home to the nation’s second-largest school district, the city has been working to replace or shut down certain water fountains and faucets due to high lead levels. Prior to the fountains or faucets being replaced or shut down, staff members are required to run the water at certain fountains and faucets for at least 30 seconds every morning to flush the toxins at schools with high lead levels.

Paint: Although the federal government banned lead-based paint in 1978, it is still in many older homes. It is the leading cause of child lead poisoning as small children may lick, swallow or breathe in the flaking paint.

Who is impacted the most and why 

Young children are highly sensitive to the toxic metal because their bodies and brains are still developing. They also may have more exposure because they tend to play and interact with dirt or contaminated toys more than adults, and it’s second nature for children to put their hands or fingers into their mouths.

Because lead is most likely to be in soil near industrial areas or in the yards of homes with old lead-based paint or lead water pipes, it highly impacts low-income children and families of color who live or work in these environments.

Why is lead so dangerous?

Lead attacks the body across all systems and affects people of all ages in different ways. 

  • Children are the most susceptible because their brains and nervous system are developing. Exposure can affect a child’s IQ and cause behavior and learning challenges, can slow growth and also lead to hearing loss and anemia.
  • Pregnant women who have had lead exposure and lead build-up in their bodies may pass it on to their fetus or to their baby through breast-feeding. Exposure can lead to premature birth and can impact a baby’s nervous system, brain and kidneys.
  • Adults can suffer decreased kidney function, reproductive issues and cardiovascular problems.

How is lead remediated, and is it ever really fixed?

This is a big question in communities across the country that are working to remove toxic soil, paint and lead pipes. Cleaning it up depends on the source and the location. This is a ripe area for reporters to do accountability reporting to examine how and if governments did what they were supposed to do.

Who governs?

Everyone and no one. State and local governments have been paying more attention to this issue in recent years.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the CDC also keep statistics about lead exposure and about blood levels of lead for kids across the nation.

Congress has weighed in on lead several times, which is under the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency. Other laws include:

Ideas for reporters:

  • Many states require that some or all children be tested for lead exposure, but little is done to check if it’s being done or what the results are. This is a great entry into how a state is managing lead exposure among children, especially those with little or no resources.
  • Why is this still going on? Lead paint was banned decades ago, emission standards for vehicles are strict and factories are now being called to answer for their toxic ways. But little has been done to remove the lead that is already out there. Why haven’t lawmakers taken this on? And if they are, what are they doing?
  • Researchers at the University of Michigan are going to study the effects of lead on pregnant women and newborns in the Grand Rapids area. In Grand Rapids, one in 10 children have elevated blood lead levels.
  • This is a national issue, with contamination across the country. But some states are more leaded than others. So where are those states and why are they so contaminated? A good start is Wisconsin and the Midwest states where the legacy of factories and lead paint is still impacting children the most.
  • Buying a home? In the thick stack of documents that home sellers and buyers sign is a lead paint disclosure. It is supposed to let incoming owners know about potential lead hazards. But do these disclosures work when most people check the box that says they don’t know if there is lead paint in the home? How can people really know, and who is responsible for the mitigation? Should they be? Are any states requiring homeowners and landlords to clean this up?

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