California Fails To Test Millions of Children for Lead Exposure

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Today, the Auditor for the State of California found that efforts by the California Department of Health Care Services and California Department of Public Health to prevent lead poisoning have failed to test millions of children on Medi-Cal. More than 1.4 million 1- and 2-year-old children did not receive any of the required tests, and another 740,000 children missed one of the two tests that determine whether they have elevated lead levels.

“Although all children can be exposed to lead in drinking water and old paint, kids from lower-income families are considered most at risk of lead poisoning,” said Susan Little, EWG’s senior advocate for California government affairs. “These agencies need to improve the transparency of their lead poisoning prevention programs and make sure that useful information on lead exposure and sources of lead contamination is readily available to the public.”

All children with Medi-Cal, the state’s version of low-income health insurance, are required to have their lead levels checked at their 1-year-old and 2-year-old checkups.

In January 2018, EWG’s analysis of state records found that between 2012 and 2016, almost three-fourths of 1- and 2-year-olds enrolled in the state-run low-income health insurance program were not tested for lead in their blood.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree that there is no safe level of lead in children. Lead is a carcinogen, harms kidney function, and has been linked to delayed growth. 

Lead also damages children’s brains. Even minute amounts of lead in the bodies of very young children cause harm to their central nervous systems. Damages caused by lead carry into adulthood, and recent studies demonstrate that adults who had elevated blood lead levels as children have smaller brains, lower IQs and lower socioeconomic status.

Lead poisoning can threaten children of any socioeconomic status, but those from lower-income families are more likely to live in older housing with lead paint or face exposure from other sources, such as factories and freeway traffic.

California defines a case of child lead poisoning as when a child has a tested elevated blood lead level of at least 14.5 micrograms per deciliter of blood, or two consecutive tests of an elevated blood lead level of at least 9.5 micrograms per deciliter of blood.

“The state’s failure to ensure lead testing for toddlers on Medi-Cal is an ongoing crisis that demands urgent attention,” said Little. “California continues to struggle to test its Medi-Cal toddlers for lead. Safeguarding children’s health must be a priority.”


The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.

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