Symptoms

The following are the most common symptoms seen in children with lead poisoning.

1. Developmental delay

In a child developing brain, lead interferes with the synthesis of neurochemicals, including the neurotransmitters that make possible the crosstalk between neuronal cells. Lead reduces the number of neuronal cells too. Therefore, infants exposed to lead may suffer neurological impairments and exhibit delays in sitting-up, crawling, walking, and talking. Children who have been exposed to lead also show lower overall IQ scores than children who were not. They are also shorter on average and weigh less than non-exposed children.

Babies are most vulnerable to lead poisoning because they spend a lot of time on the floor, around dust which may be contaminated by lead. Infants constantly put items in their mouths, which may contain traces of lead, or may pick up some contaminated dust from the flood. Parents should avoid giving their children toys or games which were painted before 1976 in the United States, as well as toys which were painted outside of the US unless they are certified, as they may contain lead.

2. Learning difficulties

Since lead affects cognitive development of young children, it can result in learning difficulties that can be carried into adulthood. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) shows that the brain of adults exposed to lead during their childhood has a smaller volume.

One study investigating the long-term effects of lead exposure in early childhood showed that the earlier the child is diagnosed with lead poisoning, the more likely he is to be diagnosed with a reading disability. Also, almost half of the subjects in the study who had early childhood lead poisoning left high school before graduation. It is worth mentioning that this cognitive impairment secondary to lead intoxication can take place even at very low levels.

3. Behavioral problems

Children exposed to lead are more likely to exhibit delinquent behavior than children who were not. In few studies, The Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) was used to measure behavior of children who were exposed to lead when compared with those who were not. All studies showed a significantly higher CBCL Total Behavior Problem Score (TBPS) in exposed children. These children exceeded clinical scores for attention, aggression, and delinquency. They present Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which can affect both learning and behavior, is also more prevalent in children exposed chronically to lead.

4. Abdominal pain

Gastrointestinal symptoms manifesting as cramping and abdominal colic usually result from long-term or chronic poisoning chronic. Since abdominal pain is an unspecific symptom, lead poisoning can be difficult to diagnose


5. Loss of appetite

Loss of appetite is a classic symptom of lead poisoning in children, although this symptom alone may not raise concern for lead poisoning due to its non-specificity. High blood levels of lead (BLL) can affect the absorption of essential vitamins and minerals, and with loss of appetite, the danger of nutrient deficiency is even greater.

6. Sluggishness or fatigue

Children are not inherently “lazy.” When a child is chronically overly tired or fatigued, something may be wrong. Children with chronic lead exposure may exhibit a lack of interest in games or activities or a gradual decrease in energy levels over a few weeks or months. 

7. Pica

Pica is an eating disorder in which people eat things which have no nutritional value, such as paper, soil, or paint. Interestingly enough, pica can be caused by lead intoxication, but it can also exacerbate the problem if the child eats things that contain lead.

 

8. Anemia

Lead disrupts the cell membrane of red cells, which become more fragile and result in anemia. Moreover, lead is known to interfere with the formation of hemoglobin essential to red cell function; and there is also a large association between iron deficiency and lead poisoning. Also, preexisting anemia alone in these children may increase the susceptibility to lead poisoning.

9. Seizures

Acute exposure to high levels of lead attacks the brain and central nervous system. This sometimes produces abnormal electrical activity in the brain manifesting in the form of convulsions or seizures. An epileptic condition, where a person experiences repetitive seizures chronically, may be triggered by lead poisoning. Seizures due to lead exposure are associated with long-term neurological damage.


10. Encephalopathy and coma

There is no known safe blood lead concentration. As a consequence, even trace amounts of lead can cause brain damage in children. High blood levels of lead have been associated with very severe neurological manifestations of encephalopathy. This is a condition characterized by brain swelling.