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Frequently Asked Questions About Lead Poisoning

By Jeffrey Sterling, MD January 22, 2019

Introduction

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Medically speaking, it really wasn’t long ago when dozens of cases of lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan occurred. Of course, this was a result of elevated levels of lead in the city’s drinking water supply. This followed inadequate preventive treatment of the water supply, which is a necessary step in the provision of public health. The water had become contaminated from aging pipes in the Flint river, which became relevant after the city switched its water supply from Detroit sources in 2014. It’s hard to fathom that the number of poisonings was so high the city declared a state of emergency. It’s even harder to accept the suboptimal response that occurred to the emergency.

In case you’re wondering, yes, this could happen to you. If you read on, we’ll tell you how to minimize your exposure. Let’s review some frequently asked questions.

What is lead poisoning? Why is it dangerous?

Lead is a chemical element (“mineral”) that is quite poisonous in humans. Swallowing or breathing lead dust can cause major health problems, both immediately (with a very high exposure), or more commonly, over time with ongoing exposures to low levels. The particular concern is in exposure to children. As is the case with head injuries or most any other type of insult to a developing child’s brain and nervous system, a significant risk to one’s mental development occurs. The younger the child, the more dangerous the exposure is; the highest risks are in the unborn.

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How does one get poisoned? What are the risk factors?

Lead used to be very common in gasoline and house paint in the U.S., but lead based paint was banned in 1978. It is estimated that approximately 4 million Americans are still significantly exposed to potentially toxic levels of lead, because lead basically is everywhere, including old house paint, new toys, dust, dirt and gasoline. Children living in cities with older houses are more likely to have high levels of lead.

Most common exposures

Here’s a quick list of lead exposures (there are many other potential exposures):

  • Homes, toys and furniture painted in the US before 1978 and any toys made outside the US (no, the paint doesn’t have to be peeling);
  • Plumbing, pipes, faucets and the water flowing through them;
  • Soil contaminated by car exhaust (think near expressways or busy streets) or house paint scrapings (think old abandoned buildings); and
  • Storage batteries

Take these exposures seriously, because lead exposure comes from swallowing, touching and/or breathing objects containing lead particles. Once in the body and bloodstream, it spread, causing damage throughout. Two notable areas of concern are the effects of lead on blood cells (causing anemia) and on bones (preventing healthy, strong teeth and bone function due to reducing the absorption of calcium.

Lead-Poisoning

How does lead poisoning get identified? What are the signs and symptoms?

Lead poisoning can affect many different parts of the body, and symptoms can range from nothing obvious to dramatic mental impairment. Symptoms are more prominent as blood lead levels get higher.

Lead is much more harmful to children than adults because it can affect children’s developing nerves and brains. The younger the child, the more harmful lead can be. Unborn children are the most vulnerable.

It’s important to reiterate that many with lead poisoning won’t have signs of illness early on. If you believe your environment poses a risk, you should ask to be checked. Symptoms are often nonspecific, but if you can remember groupings of symptoms, you’d be on the right track.

Early Symptoms

  • Behavioral problems may exist such as irritability, difficulty concentrating, sluggishness or fatigue.
  • Digestive tract problems may exist, such as loss of appetite, a metallic taste in one’s mouth, weight loss, nausea, vomiting, constipation and/or abdominal pain.
  • Neurologic problems may exist, such as headaches, muscle and joint weakness or pain, seizures.
  • Pale skin from anemia is also often a prominent finding.

Longer Term Health Problems

  • damage to the nervous system (such as poor muscle coordination, speech and language problems), kidneys, and/or hearing
  • decreased bone and muscle growth
  • developmental delay

The next Straight, No Chaser will address prevention and treatment strategies.

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