The effects of lead poisoning

What is lead poisoning?

  • Lead is a home health and safety hazard that can harm a child’s brain, causing lifelong learning and behavior problems. When lead dust is ingested or inhaled, even in miniscule amounts, it can cause significant and irreversible brain damage as well as other health problems. Lead dust equivalent of only three granules of sugar can begin to poison a child.1

What are the sources of lead in Detroit?

  • There are two main sources of lead within dwellings – paint and water pipes, though recent research has indicated a substantial portion may come from air pollution, particularly in the summer. In Detroit, most childhood lead poisoning comes from paint. Other sources of lead include soil, particularly around older buildings contaminated by flaking external paint, and adjacent to industrial facilities using (or previously having used) lead or demolished buildings.2
  • Homes built before 1978 have a good chance of containing lead-based paint. In 1978, the federal government banned consumer uses of lead-containing paint, but some states banned it even earlier. Lead from paint, including lead-contaminated dust, is one of the most common causes of lead poisoning.3 Approximately 94% of all houses in Detroit were built before 1980.4

How do kids get poisoned?

  • Deteriorating lead-based paint (peeling, chipping, chalking, cracking, damaged, or damp) is one of the key causes of lead poisoning.  It is especially hazardous when found on surfaces that children can chew or that get a lot of wear-and-tear, such as windows and window sills, doors and door frames, stairs, railings, banisters, and porches. Toddlers who crawl through dust laden floors are particularly vulnerable.3
  • Air-borne lead paint particles can also be inhaled as dust.  Lead can also be ingested through drinking water that has been contaminated as a result of lead pipework or lead-based solder. 12
  • Lead is particularly dangerous to children because their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults do and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. Babies and young children can also be more highly exposed to lead because they often put their hands and other objects that can have lead from dust or soil on them into their mouths.5

What are the impacts of lead poisoning?

In children, the main target for lead toxicity is the nervous system. Even very low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in:

  • Permanent damage to the brain and nervous system, leading to behavior and learning problems, lower IQ, and hearing problems
  • Slowed growth
  • Anemia5

In rare cases, ingestion of lead can cause seizures, coma and even death.5

Lead poisoning can also result in:

  • Inattentiveness, hyperactivity, disorganization, aggression, and increase risk of delinquency
  • Headaches, loss of appetite, agitation, clumsiness, or somnolence6

A lead poisoned child is:

  • Seven times more likely to drop out of high school7
  • For every 5 μg/dl increase in blood lead levels at six years of age, the risk of being arrested for a violent crime as a young adult increased by almost 50%.13
  • Fifty percent more likely to do poorly on the MEAP6

More than half of the students tested in Detroit Public Schools have a history of lead poisoning, which affects brain function for life, according to data compiled by city health and education officials.  About 60 percent of DPS students who performed below their grade level on 2008 standardized tests had elevated lead levels.7

Groups of children that have been followed from womb to adulthood show that higher childhood blood lead levels are consistently associated with higher adult arrest rates for violent crimes.8

Prevalence of Lead Locally and Nationally

  • Detroit is one of the worst cities in the country when it comes to lead poisoning. Although only 20% of Michigan’s children younger than 5 years lived in Detroit in 2010, childhood lead poisoning in Detroit has consistently accounted for more than 50% of the state’s total lead burden.9
  • In 1998, 15,769 children under 6 tested in Detroit had elevated levels of lead in their blood.  In 2012 this number was 2,755 children.14
  • In 2012, 7,560 children under 6 tested statewide had elevated levels of lead in their blood.10

Information Sources

  1. Olden, K., PhD. “Environmental Risks to the Health of American Children.” Preventative Medicine 22 (1993): 576-578.
  2. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control. “Healthy Home Rating System—Operating Guidance.”
  3. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2013).
  4. U.S. Census Bureau Selected Housing Characteristics, 2007-2011 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Detroit city, Michigan (
  5. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2013).
  6. Zubrzycki, J. “Lead-Exposure Problems Spotlighted in Detroit.” Education Weekly Vol. 32, Issue 5 (2012): 6-9.
  7. Lam, T. and Tanner-White, K. “High lead levels hurt learning for DPS kids.” Detroit Free Press (May 16, 2010).
  8. Drum, K. “America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead.” Mother Jones (Jan. 3, 2013).
  9. Zhang, N., PhD, Baker, H., MPH, Tufts, M., MPH, Raymond, R., MS, Salihu, H., MD, PhD, and Elliott, M., PhD. “Early Childhood Lead Exposure and Academic Achievement: Evidence From Detroit Public Schools, 2008–2010.” American Journal of Public Health 103.3 (2013): 72-77.
  10. Michigan Department of Community Health Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program 2012 Data Report on Blood Lead Testing and Elevated Levels, Childhood Lead Poisoning Data Facts All Counties in Michigan — Calendar Year 2012 — Children less than Six Years of Age:
  11. Farfel, M., Orlova, A., Lees, P., Rohde, C., Ashley, P., and Chisolm, J. “A Study of Urban Housing Demolitions as Sources of Lead in Ambient Dust: Demolition Practices and Exterior Dust Fall.” Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 111, Issue 5 (2003): 1228-1234).
  12. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2013).
  13. Wright, J., Dietrich, K., Ris, M., Hornung, R., Wessel, S., Lanphear, B., Ho, M., and Rae M. “Association of Prenatal and Childhood Blood Lead Concentrations with Criminal Arrests in Early Adulthood.” PLOS Medicine (May 27, 2008).
  14. Robert Scott, Michigan Department of Community Health (2013).

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