Lead Poisoning

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August 2009
Resources updated, December 2012

A toddler is hard at work with his crayons on the floor.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), our nation’s special education law, defines 14 categories of disability under which a child may be found eligible for special education and related services. One of those categories is “Other Health Impairment,” or OHI, for short. Within OHI’s definition, numerous disabilities and medical conditions are explicitly named. Lead poisoning is one such.

This short resource page accompanies NICHCY’s fact sheet on Other Health Impairment and provides a brief overview of lead poisoning and connections to sources of additional information.

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A Brief Look at Lead Poisoning

Lead can build up in the body over a period of months or years. Even a small amount of lead in the body can cause serious problems–hence the term lead poisoning. Children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable, because their mental and physical abilities are still developing.

Exposure to lead-based paint or paint dust is the most common avenue to lead poisoning. This exists in older buildings and poses a serious health hazard. That is why the paint we use today does not contain lead. It’s also why there has been a public awareness and prevention campaign for at least two decades to alert people to the dangers of being exposed to lead.

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Symptoms of Lead Poisoning

Unfortunately, the signs that a child may have lead poisoning are rather nonspecific, sometimes making diagnosis more difficult. Symptoms can include:

  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Sluggishness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Unusual paleness (pallor) from anemia
  • Learning difficulties

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Diagnosing and Treating Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning is diagnosed through a simple blood test. Results come back in a few days and show how much lead is in the bloodstream. A level of 10 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) or greater is considered unsafe. All children 6 months through 6 years of age who are entering day care, preschool, or kindergarten should be screened for lead poisoning by a health care provider.

If a child’s blood test shows that he or she has some lead in the blood, health care providers will typically provide the family with information on lead poisoning prevention, risk reduction, and nutritional counseling. If the level of lead in the child’s blood is high, a drug therapy called chelation may be necessary. Special drugs (called chelators) are given under a doctor’s directions or administered in the hospital. This medicine attaches to the lead and removes it from the body in the urine. When the level of lead in the blood is quite high, more than one treatment session may be required. Children with high levels of lead in their blood may be placed on special diets and need to be monitored closely to lower their risk of lead-related complications.

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Resources of More Information on Lead Poisoning

National Lead Information Center (NLIC)
(800) 424-LEAD (5323)
Información en español: http://www.epa.gov/espanol/saludhispana/plomo.html

MedlinePlus on Lead Poisoning

WebMD on Lead Poisoning

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NOTICE: The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) is no longer in operation. Our funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) ended on September 30, 2013. Our website and all its free resources will remain available until September 30, 2014.