Lead poisoning is an issue that many folks think was dealt with almost thirty years ago. After all, didn’t we finally come to our senses and get the lead out of house paint and gasoline? Yes we did, but unfortunately, like a lot of environmental issues, it’s just not that easy. Lead is a substance that doesn’t just disappear over night. The effects from this pollutant are still very present today, and unfortunately there are many children and adults that are currently at risk from the many health hazards of this destructive poison.
What is Lead Poisoning?
Lead poisoning, also known in the medical world as saturnism, occurs when a person absorbs lead in any form into their body, most often through swallowing or inhaling it. Lead is a heavy metal that is toxic to many parts of the body, including the brain and nervous system. Lead attacks the body’s tissues, as well as many enzymes. Most lead poisoning is of a chronic nature, and this type is especially dangerous to children. Acute lead poisoning is rare, but it can be life threatening.
Children’s brains and bodies are particularly susceptible to damage from lead that accumulates in their system as they grow and develop. Toddlers from the age of 12 to 36 months are in the highest risk group because they tend to commonly put objects into their mouths. Even fetuses can get lead poisoning if their mother’s are exposed to lead while they are in the womb. Lead poisoning causes learning disabilities and behavior problems in children, and many health problems in adults as well, such as hypertension (high blood pressure). Lead cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted, so the only way to know for sure if you or your children have lead poisoning is to be tested for it. Estimates place the number of children in the United States under the age of five with lead poisoning at more than 400,000.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Lead Poisoning?
Lead poisoning can be difficult to diagnose, because even individuals with high levels may not show any outward signs, at least initially. Even in children, symptoms are often hard to see. Lead tends to build up slowly, and symptoms may not exhibit themselves for years. However, certain signs are associated with lead poisoning, and some of them are different for kids and adults. Typical symptoms for children include:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Abdominal pain
- Paleness from anemia
Many of these signs can be associated with a multitude of other conditions, which makes identification of lead poisoning even more difficult.
Adults with lead poisoning often exhibit symptoms that are different from those of children:
- Muscle weakness
- Abdominal pain
- Memory loss
- Pain and/or tingling in the extremities
Acute lead poisoning is rather rare, but it can occur when an individual is exposed to a large amount of lead in a short period of time. Acute lead poisoning is very dangerous, and can be fatal in some cases. Acute symptoms include:
- Severe abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle weakness, especially in the limbs
What Causes Lead Poisoning?
Many sources of lead have been eliminated since its dangers were discovered several decades ago, but lead in the environment does not break down easily, as it is not biodegradable. There are many sources of lead contamination that can cause unhealthy levels of exposure, especially in children, but often in adults as well. Some of the more common ones are:
- Even though leaded gasoline was outlawed in 1978, the consequences are still being felt today, almost 30 years later. Lead in the soil near major highways and in some urban areas is a real problem. Children who play near such areas, especially those that put lead- contaminated soil into their mouths, are still being exposed to its dangerous effects. Lead does not deteriorate easily, and will be in the soil for many years to come. Besides pollution from leaded gasoline, lead from some industrial applications, abandoned or active, can add lead to the soil as well.
- Certain laws were enacted in the 1980’s, as a result of the Safe Drinking Water Act, that have banned the use of lead in public water systems, including the pipes, solder, and fixtures. Many homes built before 1930 had lead pipes to handle their running water. Even today, some modern homes have brass faucets or fittings that contain a certain amount of lead.
- Lead-based paint is still a huge problem in this country, even though paint with lead in it was outlawed in 1978. Leaded paint is still on the walls and woodwork of many homes and apartments, both on the interior and exterior. Children especially can be easily exposed to harmful lead levels by eating leaded paint chips or breathing lead paint dust. Lead paint is the number one cause for lead poisoning in children. If your home was built before 1940, there is about a 66% chance that lead paint is present. If built between 1940 and 1960, the percentage drops to about 50%. From 1960-1978, significantly less lead paint was used. Statistics tell us that there are about 24 million dwellings in the United States where lead paint is present, and over four million of them are home to at least one young child. Lead paint can also be disturbed during remodeling in a home, and this can create dangerous levels of lead dust and chips.
- Canned food was allowed to be soldered with lead compounds here in the US until 1995. However, some imported canned food may still contain lead solder, so be careful of foreign canned goods.
- Certain traditional remedies that are used in alternative medicine have been tagged as sources of lead contamination. Many of these come from India and other Asian countries. One example is a substance known as litargirio. This peach-colored powder is often recommended as a treatment for burns and wounds, as a deodorant, and as a foot fungicide, and is very popular in the Dominican Republic. It has dangerously high amounts of lead, and should be avoided. Another substance called Kohl is a traditional cosmetic, and it too is laced with lead. Kohl is often used as eyeliner.
- Hobbies or occupations that can contribute to lead exposure include furniture repair or refinishing, toy repair (especially antiques), stained glass, art restoration, home remodeling, battery recycling, radiator repair, indoor target shooting, and handling glazed pottery.
What Are the Possible Complications of Lead Poisoning?
The developing bodies of children are the most susceptible to the damaging effects of lead poisoning. Lead can cause lasting irreversible damage to their growing nervous systems. But often, even a child with high levels of lead in their system, will show no noticeable symptoms in the early stages. However, slowly over time, children can exhibit such serious signs as:
- Learning disabilities
- Mental retardation
- Kidney damage
- Speech and language problems
- Delayed or stunted growth
- Hearing loss
- Behavior problems, including hyperactivity
- Poor muscle coordination
- In severe cases, seizures, coma, and death.
Adults are not quite as sensitive to the effects of lead in their bodies, but definite health problems can and do arise for those who have high levels in their system. Some of the more common complications include:
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Nervous disorders
- Memory loss
- Difficulty concentrating
- Digestive problems
- Muscle and joint pain
- Reproductive problems, including damaged ability to produce sperm in men.
How Do I Know if I Have Lead Poisoning?
There is only one way to know for sure if you or one of your children has dangerous levels of lead in their body: a simple blood test. The good news is that the test is very accurate, and does not usually yield false readings. Blood can be drawn from a vein or sampled through a finger prick (a bit less traumatic for most kids). The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has set the threshold at 10 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL). Results that show up to this amount are considered the lowest level of lead intoxication (Class I). The scale goes all the way up to 70 mcg/dL (Class V), which is considered severe lead intoxication.
It is recommended that you be tested often (yearly) if you are an adult in a high-risk occupation or environment. Children up to three years old who are at increased risk, such as living in a home with lead paint or plumbing fixtures, should be tested every six months.
What Treatments Are Available for Lead Poisoning?
There are several medical treatments available to folks with lead poisoning, most of them involving drugs that have questionable side effects. Chelation is a process that involves an agent that bonds with the lead, and eliminates it from the body. Chelation is a controversial subject, even in natural medicine circles. One of the issues to be concerned about is that during the process of chelation, other minerals that the body needs can be leached along with the lead. These include magnesium, zinc, and calcium. If you have dangerous levels of lead, you must weigh the risks and benefits of using any treatment. Educate yourself, and apply that knowledge as best as you can to your situation. Times like these really drive home the importance of having a good natural medicine health practitioner (or team) that you know and trust to help you make quality decisions regarding your health.
The most important issue regarding lead poisoning is to identify the source of the lead, and to take whatever steps necessary to remove the lead, or to remove yourself from the environment.
Dealing with lead in a home environment definitely calls for wisdom. If you suspect the presence of lead in your home, the first step to take is to have a professional risk assessment done. Using that information, a decision can be made as to how to deal with lead removal, whether it be paint or plumbing. It is best not to handle removal yourself, but again to have a professional that is trained in safely and affectively removing lead. In some cases, it may be best to seal in and paint over the lead paint. In other cases, removal of the lead paint might be in your best interest. Just make sure that whomever you have handle the job has the necessary level of expertise and experience to handle the job correctly.