Halloween Scares: Nine Spooky Facts about Lurking Lead

Ghosts, ghouls and vampires can’t hold a candle to lead—a neurotoxin with the power to wreck children’s futures.

Ghosts, ghouls and vampires can’t hold a candle to lead—a neurotoxin with the power to wreck children’s futures.
Ghosts, ghouls and vampires can’t hold a candle to lead—a neurotoxin with the power to wreck children’s futures. (iordani/Shutterstock)

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As orange leaves and chilly winds herald the arrival of Halloween, kids across the nation prepare for the big day by assembling their spookiest costumes. But amid the ghosts, ghouls and vampires, an even scarier monster may go unmentioned—toxic lead, lurking in old pipes, flaking house paint, face paint, hair dye, aviation fuel and even car wheel weights.

Lead poisoning is a silent epidemic in the U.S., and too many children have fallen victim to its nasty effects. Even low levels of lead in the body are associated with learning problems, reduced IQ, hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia. Lead is not a thing of the past—it’s in water, soil, dust and even the air we breathe.

In honor of America’s spookiest day, let’s give this real monster a closer look:

  1. The paint you slather on your kid’s face for Halloween may contain lead. In 2009, a consumer advocacy group tested 10 face paints sold in the U.S. and found that all of them contained lead. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is “no safe blood lead level in children.”
  2. The human body can mistake lead for calcium. As a result, adults store 94 percent of their lead body burden in their teeth and bones, where it accumulates over time. Women are likely to release lead from their bones along with calcium when pregnant.
  3. Children absorb 4 to 5 times more ingested lead than adults from the same source, putting them at the highest risk for lead’s toxic effects. Young children tend to explore their surroundings by putting objects in their mouths, which poses an additional risk.
  4. African American children are 3 times more likely to have highly elevated blood lead levels than white children, according to a 2004 CDC report. Children of color and kids in low-income families may be more likely to live near industrial sites and highways and in older housing that contains lead paint or lead water pipes.
  5. For every dollar we invest in removing hazardous lead paint, up to $221 is saved, according to a 2009 study. This amounts to a net savings of up to $269 billion, taking into account healthcare costs and social and behavioral costs due to lower IQ from lead poisoning.
  6. Each year, 4.4 million pounds of lead are released into the environment from leaded wheel weights. They’re used to balance car tires, but can be replaced with lead-free alternatives. These weights frequently fall off of vehicles and onto streets where children play.
  7. In Minnesota, more than 10 percent of children have high blood levels of lead. In Syracuse, New York, elevated blood lead levels afflict more than 40 percent of children.
  8. There’s no mandatory federal limit on lead in drinking water, and it’s still legal for manufacturers to include lead in drinking water plumbing parts. Before 2011, water pipes were considered to be “lead-free” if their surfaces contained less than 8 percent lead. Now that number has been lowered to 0.25 percent, but even a small amount of lead is dangerous. 
  9. The EPA has failed to take action after agreeing in 2009 to update standards that protect families against toxic lead-based paint and lead in house dust. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that over half a million children in the United States have elevated levels of lead in their blood high enough to require a medical intervention.

There is no cure for lead poisoning, but we know for sure how to prevent it—by taking steps to regulate and eliminate lead’s toxic threat. That’s why Earthjustice is working to strengthen national lead standards for paint, dust and soil. We’re also pushing to make lead one of our country’s 10 priority toxins under the newly reformed Toxic Substances Control Act, and helping people in local communities get the assistance and attention they deserve. Lead is a monster of a problem, but we can do something about it. 

From 2015–2017, Caeleigh MacNeil was part of the Editorial team at Headquarters in San Francisco. She is a graduate of Duke University, where she studied English, journalism and environmental science.