By Nicole Hamp and Amy Zimmerman
Lead poisoning is one of the greatest environmental health hazards facing young children. Each year in Illinois, thousands of children are poisoned by lead, often through exposure in their homes. Young children are more vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning because their brains are still developing. They are also more likely to ingest lead from the environment because of their interactions with their surroundings (e.g., crawling, putting their hands in their mouth, biting/chewing toys).
When a child has low levels of lead, there are usually no outward symptoms. You cannot look at a child and know they have lead poisoning. They likely won’t complain of anything out of the ordinary. That said, children with low levels of lead can still suffer negative health outcomes. Such outcomes may include: problems in school, lower IQ, impaired reading readiness, reading disability, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and behavioral disorders. All of these things can be incredibly difficult for the family of a child with lead poisoning. All of these things can result in increased use of special education resources and increased health care costs.
Supporting Children With Lead Poisoning
Until recently, in Illinois there was little offered to families of children with lead poisoning. Lead in the home (e.g., lead paint, lead dust, lead in water, children’s imported toys, and imported cookware) can be mitigated or removed. In contrast, services to protect children from the negative developmental impacts of lead exposure were unavailable to children who were not exhibiting delays.
This is true even though many of the deficits caused by lower-level lead poisoning are unlikely to be apparent until a child is school-age, when they are expected to do and understand more. By then, it can be too late to intervene meaningfully. Early childhood experiences can greatly impact brain development, positively and negatively.
As a result of effective stakeholder advocacy, Illinois has become a national leader in supporting families of children with lead poisoning. The General Assembly passed legislation that provides automatic early intervention eligibility and services for children with elevated blood lead levels greater or equal to 5 micrograms per deciliter, effective July 2020.
Now, Illinois children with lead exposure are able to access early intervention services with or without signs of delay. Early intervention services and supports will help a child with lead poisoning to learn and hopefully overcome any damage from their exposure during a critical period of brain development.
How Do You Identify Lead Poisoning?
COVID-19 has made it harder to identify children with lead poisoning because many families have been unable or unwilling to bring their child into doctor’s offices for visits. Simultaneously, increased time indoors because of the pandemic may lead to increased lead exposure.
The only way to determine if your child has lead poisoning is to have a blood lead test.
Many children who receive these tests on or near their first and second birthdays have not received them because they haven’t visited the doctor’s office. Because many zip codes in Illinois are high risk for lead exposure, including all Chicago zip codes, it is important to reach out to your primary care provider about having your child tested.
If your child has an elevated blood lead level, you should be notified by your primary care physician as well as the local department of public health or the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The best way for early intervention to process referrals for services is by having your child’s primary care provider fax an early intervention referral form with information that indicates the elevated blood lead level to your local Child and Family Connections office.
Local or state departments of public health are also capable of referring your child and family for early intervention services. For families already in early intervention, it is important to let your case manager and therapists know if you have received a positive lead test. It will help them to think about additional ways to support your child and family.
For more information about lead poisoning, visit Lead Poisoning Prevention.
For more information about the benefits of early intervention for children with lead exposure watch these videos:
- Understanding the Neurocognitive Effects of Low-Level Lead Poisoning, June 2019
- The Benefits of Early Intervention for Children Who Have Been Lead Exposed, April 2019 (Spanish)
Dr. Nicole Hamp, M.D., is a developmental behavioral pediatric fellow at the University of Michigan. She also serves as an Early Childhood Champion to the state of Michigan for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Amy Zimmerman, J.D., is a member of the Illinois Interagency Council on Early Intervention, a board member at the National Center for Healthy Housing and the assistant vice president for state government affairs at the Jewish United Fund.
Originally written for the Illinois Early Intervention Clearinghouse Newsletter: Spring 2021