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Testing for lead in kids' bones reveals evidence of long-term damage a blood test might miss

Lead paint from homes built before 1980 is one of the most common sources of lead exposure for kids.
Wikimedia Commons
Lead paint from homes built before 1980 is one of the most common sources of lead exposure for kids.

When it comes to spotting lead poisoning, blood tests might not be enough. Tests on children at an Indianapolis charter school show evidence of long-term damage from lead could be hiding in kids’ bones.

Kids with lead poisoning can have trouble learning, behavioral issues and poor kidney function.

Last month, kindergarteners and first graders at the Genius School were tested for lead as part of a collaborative project between the Indianapolis NAACP, Purdue University and the Marion County Public Health Department.

While none of them had blood lead levels high enough to trigger the state to take action, they did have high levels in their bones. Purdue assistant professor Aaron Specht said lead only stays in the blood for a few weeks, but can build up in the bones and remain there for years.

“So 90 percent is in the bone and about 1 percent is in the blood. So when you do a blood test, you're not actually getting that total-body dose of what someone's been impacted with," he said.

Specht said the bone test is painless and quick. Purdue uses a handheld device to scan a child's shinbone, which sends X-ray signals indicating different elements like lead.

READ MORE: Local health departments adjust to help a lot more kids with lead poisoning

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Garry Holland is the education chair for the Indianapolis NAACP — which received a grant from the Indiana Department of Health to test children for lead poisoning.

He said the Genius School and others in the neighborhood are working to find and remediate lead in their buildings. Though that will prevent some lead exposure in the future, Holland said it doesn’t help the kids that are struggling to learn because of lead poisoning right now.

“You can repair a building, OK. You can repair the water in the building. But what about those that have been affected? And that's where we are trying to push our focus on," he said.

Holland said the bone test results allow the Genius School to follow up with neurological testing and develop specialized lesson plans for kids to help them to succeed. He said lead poisoning can sometimes mimic other conditions like ADHD or autism spectrum disorder.

Doctors in Indiana are required to offer blood lead screening for all kids under 6-years-old. Specht said Purdue is working with state and county health departments to make the bone test available to anyone who wants it.

Holland and Specht said the bone test could be especially helpful to test older children who may be having learning or behavioral issues.

Rebecca is our energy and environment reporter. Contact her at or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Rebecca Thiele covers statewide environment and energy issues.