The Connection Between Lead Toxicity and ADHD

Health Writer

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan has brought lead toxicity in children to the forefront of the news. It’s possible that thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of children were exposed to high levels of lead from drinking the water in their city. What are the residents of Flint to expect in the coming years? No one knows for certain, but exposure to lead can cause a number of medical problems, including:

As you can see, some of these symptoms are similar to those seen in children with ADHD. Some recent studies have pointed to lead as being a possible cause of ADHD symptoms, especially hyperactivity.

  • A study released in December 2015 and published in Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science found that some children with a specific genetic mutation might be more susceptible to lead exposure. These children might exhibit ADHD symptoms with only a miniscule exposure to lead. As with previous studies, lead exposure was most closely related to hyperactivity and impulsiveness and more apparent in males. While the researchers are not saying that lead exposure causes ADHD, they do believe this shows that environmental factors play a role in explaining the high number of ADHD diagnoses.
  • A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives in March 2015 found that high levels of lead in the blood were associated with increased hyperactivity and impulsiveness but not with higher levels of inattention.
  • A study completed in Arctic Quebec found that children with high exposure to lead were “four to five times more likely to have teacher-reported hyperactivity than their classmates with low lead levels.”   Children in this study were most commonly exposed to lead through eating foods hunted with lead shot.

Lead poisoning in children in the United States is monitored by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention. You can find information on lead levels for your area by visiting the CDC’s website.

There are some steps you can take to help protect your family from lead toxicity:

Have young children routinely screened for blood lead levels. Your pediatrician may or may not already do this. Ask and find out and request the test if your doctor does not normally screen for lead. You may want to do this on an annual basis, especially if your child is at high risk,, such as living in an older neighborhood.

If your home was built before 1978, check for any peeling paint (paint prior to this year contained lead), deteriorating surfaces, water leaks, contact your local health department to find out who in your area performs evaluations for potential lead problems in the home. Look for an EPA certified professional. If you are renovating a pre-1978 home, be sure to check with your local health department and the EPA for guidelines.

Think about areas where your child plays, especially areas with bare soil. Lead can get into the soil. Older areas where there are buildings with peeling paint are especially susceptible to having lead in the soil. High traffic areas might also have a higher risk. You can ask your local health department if lead tests have been done on the soil or contact the EPA to find out if there are people in your area who provide soil testing. Having everyone take their shoes off before entering the house can help prevent lead from the soil from getting into your home.

Keep your house as dust free as possible. Wet mop your floors on a regular basis, dust surfaces but avoid using cleaning tools that will wear down surfaces, such as abrasive cleaners or mops with scrubber tips.

Clean your child’s toys on a regular basis, especially those that are routinely put in a child’s mouth, such as teething rings and pacifiers.

Make sure your children eat a well balanced diet. There is some evidence that a healthy diet can reduce the amount of lead absorbed by the body. Foods high in calcium and iron may decrease lead absorption.

You also might want to ask your local water source (city, township, borough) for information on water testing. Many municipalities routinely send out the results of water testing but you can call to get a copy of the report for your area.

For more information:

10 Medical Conditions That Share Symptoms with ADD/ADHD

Diagnosing ADHD in Children

Differentiating between ADHD and Normal Childhood Behavior

Parenting Checklist: What to Do When Your Child is Diagnosed with ADHD


Learn About Lead: United States Environmental Protection Agency