The Start of the School Year Brings Joy For Some, but Risks for All

As the summer begins to wind down, our thoughts shift from summer fun to preparing for the start of the school year. However, we should also be aware of the dangers of lead. “Back to School” also can mean back to potential exposure to lead in the air and to lead contamination in soil, playgrounds and yards.

If your local school has been closed for the summer, windows will be opened to let air in and dust out. If there is peeling paint around or in the school building—unless properly wiped down and removed—the paint may release lead particles into the air that can settle on the ground, walls, floors, windowsills, doors, equipment, toys, and desks in classrooms at any disturbance. Small children—who are in closer proximity to the ground and may crawl around on contaminated floors—can breathe in these tiny particles. This heightened exposure can dramatically affect children’s development. Absorbing lead into the body can damage young brains and nervous systems, as well as potentially creating learning and behavior problems. This exposure can also slow growth and cause hearing and speech problems. All young children who come into contact with lead in this way are at risk for health impacts.

Daycare Centers, Toys, and Fresh Air

Daycare centers offer many items to keep children stimulated and learning. Pay special attention to the types of toys being offered, as some toys contain lead in the paint used on them or in the plastic used to make them. If the toys are not wiped down properly and frequently, lead particles can settle on them. It is also important to be aware of what other types of materials are used in the classroom. Are paints being used and are they properly approved? Fresh air through open windows is great, but is there construction in the area that could put lead into the air? Where are the children taken if they play outside? If they go to the park playground, has the soil in the area been tested for lead? Children love to play in the dirt, but knowing what’s in the dirt matters!

For the month of July, our Lead-Free NJ Friday Fast Fact series focused on lead in soil, playgrounds, and yards. Each Friday, we shared information on our social media channels on how to reduce young children’s exposure to lead. This guidance can also be found on the Lead-Free NJ website, in case you missed them. But there is always more to learn when it comes to sources of lead exposure:  

  • Children who live near airports may be exposed to lead in air and soil from aviation gas.
  • Certain jobs and hobbies involve working with lead-based products, like stain glass work, and may bring lead into the home.
  • Lead can be found in some products such as toys and jewelry.

To the surprise of many Americans, lead continues to be in used plastic products even today.  According to the CDC, “The use of lead in plastics has NOT been banned. Lead softens the plastic and makes it more flexible so that it can go back to its original shape. It may also be used in plastic toys to stabilize molecules from heat.” While lead in paint used on toys has been banned in the U.S., it is not banned in some other countries. Many toys, especially those purchased second hand or handled down can contain lead in the paint. Lead can also be found in older toys that were created before the U.S. ban that can be handled down as antiques.

Yards and Backyards

In an urban environment or any residential or commercial construction area, you may get lead in the air. These lead particles can settle on soil and other surfaces. Rain further pushes these particles below the soil’s surface, and the more lead particles released into the air, the more saturated the ground can become with lead. Living in areas where there are older homes, it is possible to observe this saturating effect over the course of decades. When soil is dug into, lead particles are released back into the air and can be breathed in. When kids play in this contaminated soil, the soil not only releases the particles into the air, but children can also get the particles on their hands, faces and clothing. Kids always like to play in dirt, so it is important to ensure frequent handwashing.

Symptoms of Potential Lead Poisoning

Unfortunately, the symptoms of lead exposure and poisoning are difficult to spot. If you have ANY reason to think that your child has been exposed to lead, a blood test is the best way to be sure your child is lead-safe. We have a free Child Lead Testing Request Card on our Lead-Free NJ website. You can download this card to print or store it on your phone to share with your medical provider. If you have Medicaid, the cost of this lead testing is covered by insurance. Two types of blood test can be done, but usually a finger or heel prick is done first. If there is lead present in the initial test, it should be verified with a follow-up test, where blood  is drawn from the vein, as the fingers or heels could be contaminated, artificially raising lead levels in the test results.

The More You Know!

Lead exposure has been an issue for decades. The more you learn about ways to avoid exposure, reduce risk, and test for lead, the better equipped you will be to ensure that those around you do not suffer from the effects of lead in their environment. There are many resources available on our Lead-Free NJ website to help you become more informed, and to point you toward resources and organizations that can help you as well. As schools open this fall, remember:  education is forever, but lead doesn’t have to be! Want to learn more about lead in paint? In our next blog we will discuss what you can do and new laws in place!

REMEMBER – There is No Safe Lead Level!


CDC: Lead in Consumer Products
CDC: Lead in Soil
CDC: Blood Levels in Children