Childhood Lead Exposure Linked to Lower Test Scores Among Black Youth: Study

Exposure to lead for black children often comes from lead paint used in older, federally subsidized, urban housing, researchers warn.

A new study has found African American children living in racially segregated neighborhoods are disproportionately exposed to lead at higher levels than other children, which has a direct impact on standardized testing scores, and the risk of developing long term side effects of childhood lead exposure.

Lead poisoning can affect a child’s ability to learn and develop, and health experts emphasize there is no safe blood level of lead exposure for children. Side effects of childhood lead poisoning can result in nervous system injury, brain damage, seizures or convulsions, cognitive impairment, coma and even death for young children.

Although lead paint has been banned in the U.S., many homes nationwide still have the toxic paint, and as the properties age there is a continuing risk that the paint may chip or flake off of the walls, which poses a serious risk of lead poisoning for young children who ingest the paint chips.

Over the past few decades, families have pursued lead poisoning lawsuits against landlords who knowingly failed to maintain their rental property to prevent old lead-paint from chipping off the walls.

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Lead Poisoning Lawsuits

Children diagnosed with lead poisoning after exposure to peeling or chipping lead paint in a rental home may be entitled to financial compensation and benefits.


In this new study, Duke University researchers found black elementary school students had higher concentrations of blood lead levels, which the authors claim are directly linked to lower test scores in reading when compared to their white counterparts.

The finding were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on August 15, involving a review of geocoded birth data from 25,000 fourth graders in North Carolina, as well as blood lead surveillance data and fourth-grade standardized test scores.

Lead Exposure in Childhood Linked to Lower Test Scores

According to the findings, all children with high blood lead levels were associated with lower mathematics test scores. However, non-Hispanic Black children with higher levels of lead in their blood that resided in racially segregated neighborhoods scored worse in reading.

While all children exposed to lead were associated with some risk of lower testing scores, the study highlights non-Hispanic Black children were more likely to be exposed to lead when compared to their peers due to living in racially segregated neighborhoods that are older and have higher risk factors for lead exposure from lead-based paint, lead-contaminated dust, and pipes and plumbing fixtures containing lead.

The study builds on a growing body of research which has found African Americans living in designated federal housing communities are at higher risk of lead exposure, due to lead paint in older housing and aged water supply lines contaminated with lead.

Prior to being banned, lead was commonly added to paint to speed drying, increase durability, and improve overall quality. However, it has been confirmed that the toxic lead in the paint causes serious developmental and cognitive problems in children who eat or suck on paint chips or breathe in the dust that could result from peeling paint. While lead in paint was banned in 1978, many older homes in urban communities that predated the ruling still contain dangerous lead paint.

Recently, numerous urban areas across the nation have identified high levels of lead in drinking water being supplied to communities. In November 2021, a lead exposure class action lawsuit was filed against the state of Michigan, after sampling of the public’s tap water identified extremely high levels of lead, some of which reaching more than 59 times the allowable limit.

The lawsuit claims the city intentionally abandoned its obligations to provide residents safe drinking water, failed to send out any type of adequate public notice and then charged residents for the toxic and lead-contaminated water for three years.

Several plaintiff’s describe how they and their children have developed medical conditions including chronic headaches, hypertension, learning disabilities, high blood pressure, balding, joint pain, hearing issues, memory loss and other irreversible physical and mental injuries; all alleged to have been caused by constant exposure to lead contaminated drinking water supplied by the city.

Recently, the CDC has prioritized efforts to provide early detection measures and reduce preventable childhood lead exposure cases, by significantly lowering the blood lead reference value level to 3.5 µg/dL from 5 µg/dL in U.S. children age’s one through five years old.

Shortly after the CDC’s announcement, JAMA Pediatrics published a study that found early intervention services helped children exposed to lead improve their math scores by 7% and English scores by 10%, compared to children who did not receive intervention.


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