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The Real Risk of Lead

On March 3, 2015, the water at LeeAnne Walters' house had lead levels 26 times what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers a cause for concern. She lives in Flint, Michigan. Just nine days later, a consulting group reported that Flint's water-the same water making LeeAnne's children lose their hair and break out in rashes-was safe. Despite the pleas of doctors and growing evidence from researchers, government officials waited until October 16th, 227 days, to change Flint's water source. Then, on January 16th, President Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint, and suddenly the whole country knew about the toxic water flowing through this small, 41.6% poor65% minority city.

Lead-poisoned water puts Flint's 99,000 residents at risk for serious physical and mental health problems.

When the water crisis in Flint became headline news and the presence of lead became a topic of national concern, people came forward from across the country, some with an outpouring of support and others with concerns of their own. The health threats posed by different sources of lead in St. Louis, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey joined Flint in the headlines, yet as people watched the details of the Flint tragedy unfold, the media left the false impression that the greatest risk for lead exposure is water. In fact, in most communities toxic lead paint, dust, and other sources pose a greater risk.

As the nation reacts to this tragedy, advocates, supporters, victims, and researchers hope to answer two questions: what systems will be in place to aid the residents of Flint as they face the effects of lead for years to come, and what can we learn from Flint to help the thousands of other Americans suffering from lead in their environments, too?

Lead-poisoned water puts Flint's 99,000 residents at risk for serious physical and mental health problems, ranging from headaches to behavioral issues to brain damage. Young children are especially vulnerable, and the effects can last a lifetime. For the 6,044 children in poverty in Flint, legislatorsdoctors, and researchers believe that Head Start's two-generation model is best suited to confront their short-term problems and create long-term solutions.

What can parents, like LeeAnne Walters, do to keep their families safe? Experts and researchers stress that being aware of the sources of lead poisoning is part of creating the awareness and healthy habits that reduce exposure. Head Start is in a position to help children and their families on every level, and at the beginning of this month the Department of Health and Human Services allocated $3.6 million for immediate expansion of Head Start-- an important part of the solution to Flint's needs. Routine screenings and treatment, strong early learning opportunities with individualized supports, and proper nutrition are all part of catching lead exposure early and intervening to put children on a strong trajectory for the future. By delivering such services, Head Start acts as a powerful intervention not only in Flint but across the nation.

Has your program worked with children who have high lead levels? What's worked for you? We'd love to hear about your experiences and highlight your successes! Contact Cody Kornack at


Take the Lead Buzzfeed Quiz

NHSA has created a Buzzfeed quiz for you, your staff, and your parents to test your lead knowledge! Share your results on social media and be sure to tag the National Head Start Association (@NatlHeadStart).


This blog post is an excerpt from NHSA's monthly Research Blast newsletter, which also includes background research and useful resources for each month's topic. To receive the newsletter each month, become an NHSA member today!