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The Effects of Lead Poisoning on Speech & Language

by Beth Greenwood, studioD

Those first babbles and coos are exciting for parents -- a sign that your baby is taking the steps to her first word. Children begin their speech and language development at birth, and when an infant develops normally, she will typically recognize many of the sounds in her native language by the time she is 6 months old. If her developing brain is exposed to lead, however, she may have speech or language problems, according to Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital.

Lead is Toxic Stuff

Lead is toxic to the brain and body, according to MWPH. Children are much more susceptible to lead poisoning because their brains are still developing and because their smaller bodies absorb and retain this heavy metal more quickly. Once in the body, lead deposits in teeth and hair, where it continues to cause developmental problems. The risk of damage increases if the child is exposed to high lead levels, exposed over a long period, exposed at a young age or has other risk factors such as poor nutrition.

Speech is not Language

Speech and language are different skills. Speech is the ability to make sounds and form words, according to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association. Speech includes articulation, or the ability to make sounds correctly. A child with a speech problem, for example, might use “l” instead of “r” in the word “very.” It also includes the use of the voice and fluency, or rhythm. Language is the rules for using speech and includes word meanings, grammar and the use of the appropriate word or phrase in certain situations. High lead levels in children can cause speech and language defects, according to Kids Health.

Missing Developmental Milestones

The National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders notes that most speech and language development occurs in the first three years of life. In the first three months, for example, your baby should begin to coo and make other sounds of pleasure, according to NIDCD. Babies 7 to 12 months old should babble, make nonsense words and begin to understand when you say, “Come here” or “No.” A child with lead poisoning will typically have trouble meeting developmental milestones for speech and language development, according to MWPH.

Sources of Lead Exposure

Your child is most likely to be exposed to lead if you live in an older home that has lead-based paint, but lead is used in other materials such as batteries, according to Kids Health. Lead is also found in contaminated soil. Soil near busy streets is often contaminated because lead was once used in gasoline. Lead can also be present in old plumbing, imported glazed bowls, cans sealed with lead and some jewelry or art supplies. Relatively small amounts of lead can cause problems for children.

Taking Steps

All Medicaid-eligible children must be screened in the first and second year of life, according to an October 2005 article in “Pediatrics,” as they are most likely to live in conditions where lead exposure is high. Guidelines for screening children who are not eligible for Medicaid differ from state to state. Treatment is available, but long-term lead exposure can cause permanent damage. If you are concerned about your child’s speech and language development, or think he might have been exposed to lead, contact your doctor.

About the Author

Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.

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