Facts About Childhood Lead Exposure: Where Children Come into Contact with Lead

There is no safe level of lead exposure.  Lead affects children’s brain development resulting in reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), behavioral changes such as reduced attention span and increased antisocial behavior, and reduced educational attainment. Lead exposure also causes anaemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity and toxicity to the reproductive organs.  

FACT’s mission is to raise awareness of and decrease children’s exposure to drinking water containing lead.  This is a particular problem in schools; click here for a detailed discussion on lead in school water.  This article will discuss common places where children are exposed to lead and ways to prevent exposure.

Water is an important but often overlooked source of exposure for children, especially for infants who are formula fed.  Water typically contributes to approximately 20% of a child’s blood lead concentrations if the water lead concentration exceeds 5 parts per billion (ppb).  The contribution of lead from water can be much higher for some children, especially for infants who ingest large quantities of tap water used for mixing formula and food.

Childhood lead exposure and what parents can do.

The primary sources of lead in water, which can be dissolved or particulate, consist of lead service lines, lead solder, and brass fittings that contain high concentrations of lead.  Plumbing installed before 1986, the year a federal ban was issued on using lead pipe, is more likely to contain higher concentrations of lead.  Lead service lines that are being replaced, are undergoing maintenance, or are damaged can release particles of lead that can be ingested. Proper maintenance and ultimately full replacement of water service lines will be necessary to eliminate lead intake from water, but it must be performed with proper precautions. In the interim, water filters that are certified by the National Sanitation Foundation for lead removal can effectively reduce water lead concentrations. 

Drinking fountains in older schools can be an important source of lead exposure. Unfortunately, there are no regulations for evaluating lead contamination of school drinking fountains in most states.

  • Use water filters that are certified by the National Sanitation Foundation for drinking water at home.
  •  Inquire with schools on lead testing frequency and results for drinking fountains.  
  • Use filtered or bottled water to mix infant formula and food.

Lead-contaminated soil is an important source of lead intake for children.  Lead-contaminated soil can directly contribute to children’s blood lead concentrations via soil ingestion and indirectly from soil tracked indoors on shoes, which then contaminates house dust. Former mine and smelter communities present a particular risk to children for the ingestion of lead-contaminated soil, but lead in urban soil also is often heavily contaminated from the past use of leaded gasoline and paints. Other sources of lead in soil include weathering of lead-based exterior paint and nearby renovation or demolition activity.

Regularly wet-mop floors and wet-wipe window components. Because household dust is a major source of lead, you should wet-mop floors and wet-wipe horizontal surfaces every 2-3 weeks.

Lead-based paint is the most common, highly concentrated source of lead exposure for children who live in older housing.  Paint that was used on both the interior and exterior of houses through the 1950s contained higher concentrations of lead than that of houses built in later years.

  • Talk to your state or local health department about testing paint and dust from your home for lead.
  • Make sure your child does not have access to peeling paint or chewable surfaces painted with lead-based paint.  
  • Children and pregnant women should not be present in housing built before 1978 that is undergoing renovation. They should not participate in activities that disturb old paint or in cleaning up paint debris after work is completed.


Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Prevention of Childhood Lead Toxicity, American Academy of Pediatrics-Council on Environmental Health, Bruce Perrin Lanphear, MD, MPH, FAAP, Pediattrics, July 2016, Volume 138/Issue 1 

Lead Poisoning and Health, Fact Sheet, World Health Organization 

Issue Brief: Childhood Lead Exposure and Educational Outcomes, National Center for Healthy Housing

National Sanitation Foundation 

Drinking Water Research Foundation 

Environmental Protection Agency: Testing Schools and Child Care Centers for Lead in the Drinking Water

Schools Around the Country Find Lead in Water with No Easy Answer, by Brady Dennis,  July 4, 2016, The Washington Post