Medical screenings for many conditions have fallen to the wayside during the COVID-19 pandemic, raising concerns from doctors about patients going untreated. One particularly alarming trend is a massive decline in testing for lead poisoning in children.

What is lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning is caused by a buildup of lead in the bloodstream, usually over a long period of time. It can occur in people of any age, but children are especially susceptible.

Some symptoms may seem minor at first glance. According to the Mayo Clinic, lead poisoning can result in irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, sluggishness and fatigue. More serious symptoms include vomiting, developmental issues and learning problems. Adults can also experience headaches, lapses in memory and concentration, joint and muscle pain, and high blood pressure.

Where does it come from?

The most common causes are environmental – and many times you won’t know or suspect the lead is there, states the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in its guide to lead poisoning.

In the home, two key places to look for lead are paint and pipes. Many homes built before 1978 have lead-based paint, which can flake off and turn into dust. Consuming paint chips or breathing in that dust can both lead to lead poisoning.

Older plumbing may include parts made from lead, which can bleed into the water supply. Children could be exposed to lead every time they drink tap water, brush their teeth and bathe. This is a common problem in many older neighborhoods across the country.

Finally, items found around the house, such as toys and imported candies, may contain lead. Certain hobbies, like stained glass making, may involve lead, and materials should be handled carefully.

How do you find out if you’re affected?

The only way to be sure is testing. People can be tested for blood lead levels, while buildings can be tested for contamination in areas such as paint and plumbing. The CDC offers guidance on how to get tested and what you can do to reduce the risk in your home, including replacing contaminated items and sealing lead paint behind specialized coatings.

How is COVID-19 involved?

In an interview with Kaiser Health News, Thomas Largo, of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services raised concerns about a 75% drop in blood level testing in April, right after COVID-19 shutdowns began. Without blood tests showing elevated blood levels, children don’t get treated and their environments don’t get tested or corrected.

Environmental causes are a particular concern while COVID-19 restrictions are in place. 

“I worry about kids in unsafe housing, more so during the pandemic, because they’re stuck there during the quarantine,” Aparna Bole, MD, of University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, told Kaiser Health News. Stephanie Yendell, senior epidemiology supervisor in the Minnesota Department of Health, agreed that the pandemic’s economic impact makes the situation even worse.

“If you’ve lost your job,” she said, “it’s going to make it difficult to get new windows, or even repaint.”

The news isn’t all bad. As states reopen, they are working to make sure lead risk is taken seriously. Michigan, for example, is already making plans to work with schools and child care centers, using a $1.9 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The take-home

Lead poisoning is a real problem for children, and the COVID-19 crisis has led to a dramatic decrease in the number of tests being carried out. If you notice any of the above symptoms or have other reason to be concerned, reach out to your child’s doctor for help as soon as possible.