Boy With Extraordinarily High Blood Lead Levels

September 1, 2008

A 9-year-old asymptomatic boy was referred to our tertiary care facility with a blood lead level (BLL) of 59 μg/dL. A diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which was managed with amphetamine/dextroamphetamine, had been made when the patient was 6 years old.

A 9-year-old asymptomatic boy was referred to our tertiary care facility with a blood lead level (BLL) of 59 μg/dL. A diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which was managed with amphetamine/dextroamphetamine, had been made when the patient was 6 years old.

Other than the patient’s abnormal eating habits, a review of systems was negative. According to his mother, the child ate “anything and everything- including refrigerator magnets!” Results of a physical examination were unremarkable. The complete blood cell count was normal, as was the zinc protoporphyrin level.

An abdominal radiograph (Figure 1) revealed multiple radiopaque specks throughout the colon and moderate stool retention. The patient was hospitalized for bowel clean-out and initiation of chelation therapy with succimer (meso-2,3- dimercaptosuccinic acid [DMSA]). Inspection of his stool revealed parts of refrigerator magnets, string, paper, labels, pigments of various colors, pencil points, and other unidentifiable particles (Figure 2). The exact source of lead was not determined- even after an extensive environmental inspection.


Pica is the unusual phenomenon of compulsive ingestion of nonfood substances. Normally, children in the first 2 to 3 years of life explore objects in the environment with their mouths. When older persons ingest non-food substances, the habit is called pica.

Paper, clay, and dirt are a few of the more common non-food substances ingested, along with the chewing of ice (pagophagia). Pica may signal the presence of an underlying condition, including developmental and cognitive disorders (mental retardation, autism, dementia, delirium), psychiatric disorders (depression, schizophrenia, obsessive- compulsive disorder), and nutritional deficiencies (iron or zinc deficiency). It may be symptomatic of celiac disease, child neglect or inadequate supervision, or pregnancy. In some of these conditions, it is unknown whether pica is the cause or the effect.

The known potential consequences of pica are formation of a gastric bezoar,1 intestinal obstruction,2 parasitic infection, and an elevated blood lead level.3 The normal mouthing of objects in early toddlerhood and pica are risk factors for elevated BLLs (in excess of 10 μg/dL).3,4 In the United States, the main sources of lead are paint (mainly in homes built before the late 1970s), dust, and soil.4 Although adverse effects may result from a BLL lower than 10 μg/dL, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the CDC consider a BLL of 10 μg/dL or greater as the threshold for concern.4

An elevated BLL can be confirmed with a single venous blood specimen or with any combination of 2 capillary and/or unknown blood specimens drawn within 12 weeks of each other.5

US surveillance data from 2005 revealed that BLLs were elevated in fewer than 2% of children who were tested.6 In approximately 500 of those children, BLLs exceeded 44 μg/dL. BLLs typically peak at 2 years of age and do not generally persist into older childhood, even when housing improvements have not been made.4 In addition to undetermined reasons, this is probably because, at this age, children stop putting objects into their mouths. Populations of children at particular risk for a high BLL include medicaid- eligible youngsters, immigrants, and international adoptees.4
Consequences of lead poisoning.
Cognitive deficits and behavioral abnormalities are the main sequelae of lead poisoning. High lead levels can cause encephalopathy and seizures, but the true impact of lead exposure on the development of behavioral disorders (such as attentional problems) is unknown.7 The most recent AAP policy statement on the management of lead poisoning recommends chelation with succimer for patients with a BLL in excess of 45 μg/dL.4 The statement emphasizes that there are no data to support chelation therapy at lower BLLs.

Therapy. Treatment must begin after the environmental source of lead exposure has been eliminated. Underlying iron deficiency, which increases GI absorption of lead, must also be corrected.

The reader is referred to the AAP’s policy statement4 and also to a recent publication by the CDC that outlines management for children with BLLs below 10 μg/dL, environmental interventions, prevention, and screening recommendations.8

The treatment of pica may be the more difficult task-especially in the cognitively or developmentally delayed patient. Consistent attention and careful adult supervision, behavioral modifications (verbal reprimands, physical restraints), and aggressive treatment of any potential underlying associated conditions may require the expertise of other specialists.




. Conyers R, Efron D. Agitation and weight lossin an autistic boy. J Paediatr Child Health. 2007;43:186-187.


. Kim S, Qureshi F. Images in emergency medicine.Small-bowel obstruction as a result of sandpica. Ann Emerg Med. 2007;49:378, 386.


. de Freitas CU, De Capitani EM, Gouveia N, et al.Lead exposure in an urban community: investigationof risk factors and assessment of the impact oflead abatement measures. Environ Res. 2007;103:338-344.


. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee onEnvironmental Health. Lead exposure in children:prevention, detection and management. Pediatrics.2005;116:1036-1046.


. Department of Health and Human ServicesCenters for Disease Control. CDC SurveillanceData, 1997-2006. Available at:

. Accessed January 29,2008.


. Department of Health and Human ServicesCenters for Disease Control. Number of childrentested and confirmed EBLLs by state, year, and BLLgroup, children January 29, 2008.


. Hussain J, Woolf AD, Sandel M, Shannon MW.Environmental evaluation of a child with developmentaldisability. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2007;54:47-62.


. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) Advisory Committee on Childhood LeadPoisoning Prevention. Interpreting and managinglead levels AccessedJanuary 29, 2008.