Study: Even Small Amounts of Lead Can Cause Brain Damage in Children

Small amounts of lead, even those well below the federal standard, may cause brain damage in children, a six-year study from Cornell University claims.

The study examined the effect of lead exposure on cognitive function in children whose blood-lead levels, or BLLs, were below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standard of 10 micrograms per deciliter, about 100 parts per billion. The researchers compared children whose BLLs were between 0 and 5 micrograms per deciliter with children in the 5-10 micrograms/deciliters range.

"Even after taking into consideration family and environmental factors known to affect a child's cognitive performance, blood lead played a significant role in predicting nonverbal IQ scores," said Richard Canfield, a senior researcher in Cornell's Division of Nutritional Sciences and senior author of the study.

"We found that the average IQ scores of children with BLLs of only 5 to 10 [micrograms/deciliters] were about 5 points lower than the IQ scores of children with BLLs less than 5 [micrograms/deciliters]. This indicates an adverse effect on children who have a BLL substantially below the CDC standard, suggesting the need for more stringent regulations," he said.

The findings are especially relevant since over the last several months in the United States nearly 50 specific products, including millions of toys for young children, have been recalled due to excessive lead in the paint, plastics and metal.

"Our findings emphasize the very real dangers associated with low-level exposures, to which lead in toys can contribute," Canfield said.

Children in the U.S. are exposed to lead primarily from household dust contaminated by deteriorating interior lead-based paint. In addition to toys, other potential sources include contaminated soil, imported food stored in lead-glazed pottery and certain plastic, metallic and painted products.

"Children living in poverty disproportionately suffer from elevated BLLs," said statistician and co-author Charles Henderson, a Cornell senior researcher in human development. He also noted that "even a small decline in an IQ score is likely to be reflected in aptitude test scores such as the SAT."

"The bottom line," according to Canfield, "is that lead is a persistent neurotoxin that causes brain damage. The fact that lead has been found in millions of toys, even toys specifically designed for children to put into their mouths, presents an unacceptable risk. Our findings suggest the need to re-evaluate the current federal standards for lead in consumer products and the current definition of an elevated BLL in children."