The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), our nation’s special education law, defines 14 categories of disability under which a child may be found eligible for special education and related services. One of those categories is “Other Health Impairment,” or OHI, for short. Within OHI’s definition, numerous disabilities and medical conditions are explicitly named. Lead poisoning is one such.

A Brief Look at Lead Poisoning

Lead can build up in the body over a period of months or years. Even a small amount of lead in the body can cause serious problems–hence the term lead poisoning. Children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable, because their mental and physical abilities are still developing.

Exposure to lead-based paint or paint dust is the most common avenue to lead poisoning. This exists in older buildings and poses a serious health hazard. That is why the paint we use today does not contain lead. It’s also why there has been a public awareness and prevention campaign for at least two decades to alert people to the dangers of being exposed to lead. As 2015 lead-poisoning disaster in Flint, Michigan shows, public awareness of the dangers of lead is ever-important. The reality is that lead poisoning can come from other sources besides paint, including drinking water that contains lead.

Symptoms of Lead Poisoning

Unfortunately, the signs that a child may have lead poisoning are rather nonspecific, sometimes making diagnosis more difficult. Symptoms can include:

  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Sluggishness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Unusual paleness (pallor) from anemia
  • Learning difficulties

Diagnosing and Treating Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning is diagnosed through a simple blood test. Results come back in a few days and show how much lead is in the bloodstream. A level of 10 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) or greater is considered unsafe. All children 6 months through 6 years of age who are entering day care, preschool, or kindergarten should be screened for lead poisoning by a health care provider.

If a child’s blood test shows that he or she has some lead in the blood, health care providers will typically provide the family with information on lead poisoning prevention, risk reduction, and nutritional counseling.

  • If the level of lead in the child’s blood is high, a drug therapy called chelation may be necessary. Special drugs (called chelators) are given under a doctor’s directions or administered in the hospital. This medicine attaches to the lead and removes it from the body in the urine.
  • When the level of lead in the blood is quite high, more than one treatment session may be required. Children with high levels of lead in their blood may be placed on special diets and need to be monitored closely to lower their risk of lead-related complications.

Educational Help for Children with Lead Poisoning

Two systems of help are available immediately to help eligible children with high levels of lead in their blood. These divide out by age, as follows:

Early intervention services are for children under the age of 3. Known as Part C of IDEA, the early intervention program exists in every state and includes free evaluation of the baby or toddler to see what the problem is, identifying the needs of the child (and family) based on the child’s disability or developmental delay, and designing and delivering an individualized family service plan (IFSP) to address the child’s unique needs.

Special education and related services are for children from 3 to 21, sometimes older. These services include specially designed instruction and a wide range of supports to address the student’s individual needs that result from his or her disability. Special education and related services are available to eligible children, free of charge, through the public school system. This includes a comprehensive and individual evaluation of the child to determine his or her eligibility, unique needs, and what types of services and supports are needed by the child to address those needs.

If your child has been found to have high levels of lead in his or her blood, you will want to find out all you can about these service systems. They can be incredibly helpful for your child.  Lead poisoning is considered an “other health impairment” for which special services are available.

Resources with More Information on Lead Poisoning

National Lead Information Center (NLIC)
(800) 424-LEAD (5323)
Información en español:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Information for Parents on Lead Poisoning

Educational Interventions for Children Affected by Lead (PDF, 1.5 MB)

Lead Poisoning: Words to Know from A to Z (PDF, 1.4 MB)

MedlinePlus on Lead Poisoning

WebMD on Lead Poisoning