Lead poisoning is a serious and sometimes fatal condition. It occurs when lead builds up in the body. Lead is a highly toxic metal and a very strong poison. It is found in lead-based paints, including paint on the walls of old houses and toys. It is also found in:
- art supplies
- contaminated dust
- gasoline products (no longer in the US and Canada)
Lead poisoning usually occurs over a period of months or years. The poisoning can cause severe mental and physical impairment. Young children are most vulnerable to lead poisoning.
Children get lead in their bodies by putting the lead containing objects in their mouths. They may also be poisoned by touching the lead and then putting their fingers in their mouths. Lead is more harmful to children because their brains and nervous systems are still developing.
Severe lead poisoning is treated with chelation therapy and EDTA. However, damage from lead poisoning cannot be reversed.
Lead poisoning occurs when lead is ingested. It can also be caused by breathing in dust that contains lead. You cannot smell or taste lead. It is not visible to the naked eye.
Lead used to be common in house paint and gasoline in the United States. These products are not produced with lead any longer. However, lead is still present everywhere. It is especially found in older houses.
Common sources of lead include:
- house paint from before 1978
- toys and household items painted before 1976
- toys made and painted outside the United States
- bullets, curtain weights, and fishing sinkers made of lead
- pipes and sink faucets, which can contaminate drinking water
- soil polluted by car exhaust or chipping house paint
- paint sets and art supplies
- jewelry, pottery, and lead figures
- other types of art hobbies and projects
- storage batteries
- Kohl or kajol eyeliners(used more in other countries)
- Some traditional ethnic medicines
Children are at the highest risk of lead poisoning. There is a particularly high risk for children living in old houses with chipping paint. This is because children are prone to putting objects and fingers inside their mouths.
People in developing countries are also at a higher risk. Their countries do not have strict rules regarding lead. If you adopt a child from a developing country, his or her lead levels should be checked.
Symptoms of lead poisoning are varied. They may affect many parts of the body. Most of the time, lead poisoning builds up slowly. It follows repeated exposures to small quantities of lead.
Lead toxicity is rare after a single exposure or ingestion of lead.
Signs of repeated lead exposure include:
- abdominal pain
- abdominal cramps
- aggressive behavior
- sleep problems
- loss of developmental skills in children
- loss of appetite
- high blood pressure
- numbness or tingling in the extremities
- memory loss
- kidney dysfunction
Since a child’s brain is still developing, lead can lead to mental impairment. Signs of mental impairment may include:
- behavior problems
- low IQ
- poor grades at school
- problems with hearing
- learning difficulties(short and long term)
- growth delays
A high, toxic dose of lead poisoning may result in emergency symptoms. These include:
- severe abdominal pain and cramping
- muscle weakness
- stumbling when walking
- encephalopathy, which manifests as confusion, coma and seizures
If someone has symptoms of severe lead exposure, call 911. Be sure to have the following information ready to tell the emergency operator:
- the person’s age
- their weight
- the source of the poisoning
- the amount swallowed
- the time the poisoning occurred
In nonemergency situations, call poison control to discuss lead poisoning symptoms. They will let you speak with an expert.
Lead poisoning is diagnosed with a blood lead test. This test is performed on a standard blood sample.
Lead is common in the environment. Low levels in adults are not harmful. However, low levels in children are a cause for concern. Normal lead levels vary by age group. The amount of lead in the blood is measured in micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL).
For adults, a normal result is less than 20 mcg/dL. Slightly higher levels may not be serious. Treatment is recommended if the adult has symptoms of lead poisoning. It is also recommended for a blood lead level greater than 60 mcg/dL.
For children, a normal result is less than 10 mcg/dL. Any level higher than normal should be monitored closely. The source of lead should be immediately removed. A level greater than 45 mcg/dL should always be treated. Levels of 10-25 mcg/dL have been associated with impaired neurobehavioral development in children. Levels of 25-50 mcg/dL may be associated with headache, irritability, and early nerve problems. Levels of 50-70 mcg/dL are associated with moderate toxicity, and levels greater than 70-100mcg/dL are associated with severe poisoning.
Additional tests could include blood tests to look at the amount of iron storing cells in the blood, X rays and possibly a bone marrow biopsy.
The first step of treatment is to locate and remove the source of the lead. Keep children away from the source. If it cannot be removed, it should be sealed. Call your local health department for information on how to remove lead. They can also help you reduce the likelihood of lead exposure.
In more severe cases, a procedure known as chelation therapy can be used. This treatment binds to accumulated lead. The lead is then excreted in urine. Activated charcoal can be used to bind the lead in the gastrointestinal tract and substances which encourage elimination via defecation(cathartics) may also be used. A chemical called EDTA may also be used but it can be hard to reverse the effects of chronic exposure to lead.
Simple steps can help you prevent lead poisoning. Some tips include:
- Avoid or throw away painted toys and canned goods from foreign countries.
- Keep your home free from dust.
- Use only cold water to prepare foods and drinks.
- Make sure everyone washes their hands before eating.
- Test your water for lead. If lead levels are high, consider using a filtering device. You can also drink bottled water.
- Clean faucets and aerators regularly.
- Wash children’s toys and bottles regularly.
- Teach your children to wash their hands after playing.
- Make sure any contractor doing work in your house is certified in lead control.
- Use lead-free paint in your homes.
- Screen young children for blood lead levels.
- Avoid areas where lead based paint may have been used
If you have any questions regarding the safe removal of lead, the following resources can help:
- Housing and Urban Development (HUD): 1-(800) RID-LEAD
- National Information Center: 1-(800) LEAD-FYI
- National Lead Information Center: 1-(800) 424-5323
Adults with moderate exposure usually recover without any complications.
In children, recovery can take time. Even low lead exposure can cause permanent mental impairment.