Lead Exposure in Children Linked to Permanent Brain Damage: Study

New research has confirmed that permanent brain damage can result from lead exposure in children, damaging the impulse-control centers of the brain.

The study was presented Tuesday at an annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago, looking at the long-term effects of childhood exposure to lead. Researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center found that lead poisoning at a young age caused damage to the regions of the brain that control how decisions are made, and the brain damage from lead exposure persists into adulthood.

Lead poisoning can result in nervous system injury, brain damage, seizures or convulsions, growth or mental retardation, coma and even death. Most cases of elevated lead blood levels in children are caused by exposure to lead paint, which is still present in many older homes throughout the United States. If the paint flakes off the wall, young children could ingest the paint chips or breath in the dust, causing elevated levels of lead in the blood.

Researchers performed Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans on 33 adults with a mean age of 21 who had elevated blood levels as children. The subjects were part of the Cincinnati Lead Study as infants from 1979 to 1987. All had decreased IQ and criminal histories as juveniles.

The scans found that the frontal lobe of the brain, which develops late, was permanently damaged by lead exposure, inhibiting the person’s ability to make decisions, focus, and control their impulses. Other parts of the brain attempt to take up the tasks of the damaged regions, but are unable to do the job properly.

The study’s results indicate that lead exposure brain damage does not reverse as blood levels decrease, and can affect the child’s behavior and intelligence for life.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 250,000 children in the United States have blood levels greater than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, which is the level that the CDC considers deserving of public health action.

Lead paint poisoning is a particular risk for children living in older rental properties in large cities where the homes may be poorly maintained, allowing paint to flake off the walls. Numerous lead paint lawsuits have been brought against landlords for failing to maintain older rental properties where families with young children reside. Allowing peeling or flaking lead paint to remain on the walls could expose property owners to liability for lead poisoning experienced by children years later.

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