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What Happens to a Child’s Brain When Exposed to Lead?

by   -  February 8th, 2016

by Kasza, despositphotos.com
by Kasza, despositphotos.com
Over the past few months, news has been trickling in about the Flint, Michigan water disaster. For 18 months, citizens of Flint have been slowly poisoned by the lead contaminated water the city had been claiming was perfectly safe. Thanks to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a researcher and the director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center, the whistle was blown on what has turned out to be a massive cover-up by city and state officials. The Governor has declared a state of emergency, meanwhile, the United States federal government is launching an investigation into what really happened.

Children ages 0-6 are most affected and susceptible to lead poisoning. This is due to the prevalence of putting things in their mouths during these early years, and the important developments happening in their brains during this time. There are literally thousands of kids who have been poisoned by lead in Flint, and this outcome will have dire consequences as the children grow into adults, due to the cognitive deficits these children will deal with because of this man-made catastrophe.

What happens to children exposed to high levels of lead?

Children who are exposed to moderate to high levels of lead suffer damage to their brains and nervous systems, liver, and kidneys. There are no safe levels of lead, so even small doses can do irreparable damage to a developing mind and body. Lead is generally stored in the bones and teeth and will eventually leach back into the bloodstream, which in turn affects the brain all over again. The ways lead wreaks havoc on a child’s developing mind includes the following:

o Permanent loss of IQ points

o Impairments in language fluency or communication

o Memory issues

o Trouble paying attention

o Lack of concentration

o Poor fine-motor skills

o Difficulty with planning and organization

o Difficulty forming abstract concepts

o Poor cognitive flexibility

Prolonged high levels of lead exposure can lead to:

o Deafness

o Blindness

o Coma

o Convulsions

o Death (in rare cases)

Lead-exposed children are more likely to have:

o Reading difficulties

o Poor vocabulary

o Attention problems

o Poor fine-motor coordination

o Greater school absenteeism

o Lower class ranking

What can be done to help kids exposed to high levels of lead?

For children with dangerously high levels of lead (above 45 micrograms/dL), Chelation (pronounced key-LAY-shun) therapy involves the administration of dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA), also known as succimer. The way it works it the lead will bind to the drug and eventually be excreted through urination.

However, it’s not a cure all. While Chelation can save the life of a child with dangerously high levels of lead, it doesn’t get rid of everything. It also doesn’t reverse any of the adverse effects of lead poisoning on the brain and other systems of the body. Chelation can also have a detrimental effect on kids with a blood lead level lower than 45 micrograms/dL, and since it doesn’t reverse the effects, Chelation is pretty much pointless for them.

Can anything else be done?

o Eliminate contamination

For all children who are suffering from high levels of lead, the best place to start is by eliminating the source of lead contamination in the first place. In the case of Flint, Michigan, this would be their drinking water contamination. For others, it could be the paint in their home or a type of toy a child is chewing on.

o Diet

Lead doesn’t leave the body in a quick fashion, which is one of the reasons it’s so toxic. To prevent intestinal absorption of lead and speeding up the elimination of lead from the body, children need to have a diet rich in calcium and iron.

o Evaluation

It’s wise to have children who have been poisoned by lead to consult a neuropsychologist around the age 6 years to evaluate if there are needs for educational interventions and support.

Lead poisoning is a dangerous, irreversible problem for children; as the families in Flint, Michigan will no doubt be experiencing first hand. What matters now is the source of contamination be neutralized, so the families and with the care of their doctors can manage the damage that’s been done these past 18 months. Hopefully, in time, justice for those who allowed this toxic chemical to be in the public water system for as long as it was, will be served. Then, maybe these families can find some peace with what’s happened there.


is an passionate author and freelancer from Minnesotan with a focus in creative writing.

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