In the 1970s, the Black Panthers set up trailers and trucks on city streets across the country, offering free health services to underserved communities of color. Through these clinics, which they called Peoples’ Free Medical Clinics, the organization offered first-aid services and free preventive care screenings for, among other things, lead poisoning. Lead exposure was top of mind at the time, as its harmful effects on children’s health were already known and its use in gasoline, water pipes, and paint was widespread in the U.S. Following several statewide restrictions, which the lead industry aggressively lobbied against, the U.S. eventually banned the use of lead in house paint in 1978. Those restrictions contributed to a 75 percent decline in average blood lead levels in children under 5 in the U.S. between 1976 and 1990. 

But lead exposure in older homes and through household objects continues to be a crisis, especially among Black children and historically underserved communities. Proof of that are the water emergencies involving lead contamination in places like Flint, Michigan, Jackson, Mississippi, and many others. Over the years, cities have grappled with ways to prevent lead exposure, implementing screening programs for children like the one the Black Panthers pioneered. Those most at risk continue to be children under 6 years old, and the effects on their brains and development can be severe. A recent study conducted in North Carolina found that non-Hispanic Black children with higher blood lead levels and exposed to racial segregation had lower reading test scores. 

Here, we outline what you need to know about lead exposure and lead poisoning, and how you can protect your children from it. 

Where lead can be found

Lead can be found at home, especially in residences built before the lead-based paint ban in 1978. Chipped paint is especially dangerous, as children can put it in their mouths, and so is dust that can be inhaled from places like window sills. Even in newer homes, you might have lead hazards around, according to Larry Brooks, director of the Alameda County Healthy Homes Department in Oakland, California. “We’re finding that children are being lead-poisoned a lot now by herbal medicines, cosmetics, and jewelry,” he says. “And we have developed programs to try to help identify lead hazards, beyond simply the obvious peeling lead paint in a pre-1978 home.” 

If you have peeling or chipping paint in your home and a child younger than 6 years old, your landlord may be required to fix it—this is the case, for instance, in New York City. In places like Baltimore, landlords are required to perform “risk reduction treatments” every time a tenant moves in and provide a certificate to the tenant. Overall, landlords around the country should comply with EPA regulations, like providing the renter with information about the presence of lead-based paint in the building. 

Other potential things at home that can expose your child to lead include: 

  • Dishes, pots, and water crocks that are worn, antique, or made outside of the U.S. (unless they have been previously lead tested)
  • Plumbing materials that could enter tap water 
  • Old or vinyl toys 
  • Jewelry 
  • Foods, including some brightly colored spices like chapuline and turmeric and some imported candy
  • Traditional cosmetics and remedies like surma, azarcon, greta, and pay-loo-ah
  • Lead fishing sinkers, lead bullets, and lead solders (fusible metal used to join metallic surfaces together)

What lead exposure can do to children

Young children under 6 years old are most at risk of lead poisoning. According to the CDC, there’s no safe blood lead level in children, and even low levels can impact a child’s intelligence, academic achievement, and ability to pay attention. Some of lead poisoning’s effects include damage to the brain, learning and behavior problems, hearing and speech problems, and slowed growth and development. 

Testing children under 6 years old is key 

The best way to prevent lead exposure or poisoning in children is to test them for lead when they are under 6 years old: “In most instances, you will not know that your child has been lead poisoned [until] perhaps they’re struggling to learn their language skills, or they’re starting to show some behavior that you haven’t noticed before, maybe more easily angered,” Brooks says. “The key is [to] get your children tested early and between the ages of 0 [and] 6; that’s when it’s going to have its greatest impact.” 

If your child is under 6 years old, talk to their pediatrician about whether they need to be blood tested for lead. If your child is enrolled in Medicaid, they’re required to get tested for lead when they’re 1 and 2 years old, and any child between 2 and 6 years old who hasn’t previously been tested should be tested. (In some states, children under 6 are tested annually, but requirements vary, so it’s good to check with your local health department.) If they’re not enrolled in Medicaid, call your insurance plan to check if lead testing is covered or see if your state’s or city’s health department has a free or low-cost lead screening program. Some states with universal lead screening programs include Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, New JerseyNew York, and Rhode Island

Some adults are at risk, too

Though children are most at risk and can suffer the worst consequences of lead exposure because of their developing brains, adults can also be at risk in certain situations. Adults with a high risk of lead exposure include those who work in the construction industry (who could also bring lead dust home to their children) and those who work or participate in a hobby with metal, paint, or pigments that contain lead. In adults, lead exposure can cause high blood pressure and brain, kidney, and reproductive health issues. Though most adults with lead poisoning may not feel or look sick, the symptoms of lead poisoning include constipation, trouble sleeping, stomach cramps, headaches, and muscle/joint pain, among others. 

You should also avoid doing home renovations on your own if you’re not an expert, as renovating without safety precautions or a mask can lead to lead poisoning. Organizations and individual contractors doing work in houses, apartments, or other facilities built before 1978 and occupied by children are required by the EPA to take a training course and be certified in the agency’s Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting (RRP) Rule. The EPA also offers several lead safety courses for contractors.