Thursday, October 24, 2019 - 8:02am

Childhood exposure to lead can affect growth and development, and can cause lifelong learning disabilities, developmental delays, and other behavior and health problems. In Dane County, exposure to lead continues to be a public health challenge affecting our youth. In 2018, medical providers reported 45 Dane County children having lead poisoning.

“While the number of children affected by lead poisoning has decreased slightly in our area, even one child affected is one too many,” says John Hausbeck, Environmental Health Supervisor for Public Health Madison & Dane County.

A blood test is the only way to know if a child has lead poisoning. Children 6 months to 6 years are most at risk, especially if they live in or visit older housing. Consulting with a child’s health care provider will help determine the child’s risk and need for testing.

“This is an important public health concern,” continues Hausbeck. “While anyone can get lead poisoning, young children are particularly vulnerable to exposure because of their behavior of putting their hands, toys, and other things in their mouth.”

Lead poisoning is caused by swallowing or breathing lead. The most common cause of lead poisoning is when young children play near areas where there is lead dust and paint chips, usually in housing built prior to 1978, when lead-based paint was typically used. They can get lead dust or chips on their hands and toys and when they put their hands in their mouth, they are exposed, which can lead to lead poisoning.

Lead in drinking water is another source of exposure and usually comes from older water pipes. The risk of childhood lead exposure is not just restricted to the home, but also daycare and school if older lead-containing pipes and paint are present.

“Not all municipalities in Dane County have replaced lead service pipes,” says Hausbeck. “Anyone who is raising children in an older home needs to be aware of all the potential sources of lead and take action to prevent exposure. If they are uncertain whether there are lead pipes leading into or in their home, they should investigate,” continues Hausbeck.

Public Health Madison & Dane County plays a key role in preventing lead exposure, identifying lead poisoning, and advocating to address the problem:

  • As a preventive measure, Public Health identifies areas of Dane County that have higher concentrations of older homes with children and offers free home visits to families with children under age 6 in pre-1978 homes. Information is provided on possible lead hazards in the home, and how to prevent lead exposure.
  • Public Health prepared recommendations to school district and child care facilities about the need to test water and if necessary, actions to take to reduce the amount of lead in the water.
  • When a child is identified with lead poisoning, both public health nurses and environmental health staff get involved.
    • Public Health Nurses work with the family and their health care provider to assure the child is receiving appropriate medical care, including follow-up blood testing and, if warranted, assess the development of the child. In 2018, case management services were provided to 55 children due to elevated blood lead levels.
    • Sanitarians investigate the home for sources of lead poisoning and provide guidance and support in minimizing exposure and remediating the lead. They also respond to complaints about lead hazards in the community. In 2018, Sanitarians inspected 31 housing units or childcare sites and advised about lead risks.
  • The Public Health Laboratory tests water for lead, as well as paint and varnish chips.

There is no safe level of lead exposure in children. The good news is that lead poisoning is preventable.


Health & Safety