Lead Poisoning

By:    Published: October 3, 2013

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Lead poisoning occurs when a person is exposed to a high level of lead. Lead is a toxic material that is harmful to individuals of all ages, especially young children. If you have children, it is important to determine if they are being exposed to lead. Long-term exposure to the substance can cause severe health ailments.

Understanding Lead Poisoning

Lead is a poisonous substance that is found in many materials. Lead has no odor or taste and you can’t see it because it is often a component in a much larger material. If lead is ingested, inhaled or absorbed into the skin, it can cause serious health problems. Lead build-up in the body can occur over time, but even the smallest amount can be harmful. At extreme levels, lead poisoning can cause death. Children under the age of 6 are especially susceptible to the effects of lead poisoning, which can cause severe mental and physical impairments.

Symptoms

Symptoms of lead poisoning can be difficult to recognize at first. A person can have lead in their blood stream and produce no symptoms. Symptoms usually occur when the lead build-up reaches dangerous levels.

Symptoms for children with lead poisoning include:

  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach pain
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Difficulty learning

Symptoms for newborns exposed to lead before birth include:

  • Slow learning
  • Delayed growth

Symptoms for adults with lead poisoning include:

  • Impaired mental function
  • High blood pressure
  • Pain and numbness in arms and legs
  • Headache
  • Stomach pain
  • Memory problems
  • Low sperm count in men
  • Miscarriage in women

Where Is Lead Found?

In the United States, lead was once commonly found in paint and gasoline. While lead is no longer a component in most of these items, children who live in old houses may continue to be exposed to lead through aging house paint. Additionally, lead remains a health concern because it is found in many places. Lead can be found in:

  • Paint made before 1978. Children living in houses built in the 1960’s have the greatest risk of lead poisoning because paint most often contained lead at that time.
  • Furniture painted prior to 1976
  • Toys painted prior to 1976
  • Toys or decorative items made in a place other than the United States
  • Bullets
  • Fishing apparatus
  • Curtain weights
  • Plumbing pipes and faucets. If pipes were soldered with lead, drinking water can be contaminated. Builders are not currently permitted to use lead solder; however, faucets may still be made with lead parts.
  • Dirt and soil near highway roads and houses may be contaminated with lead due to years of car pollution and paint use.
  • Children’s art supplies
  • Dinnerware and other items made of pewter
  • Batteries

Why Is Lead Dangerous?

Lead is poisonous to humans when ingested, inhaled or absorbed by the skin. Exposure to high levels of lead over a short time is called acute toxicity. Lead exposure in small increments over a long period of time is called chronic toxicity. Much like beneficial minerals such as iron or zinc, when ingested, lead travels through the body. If lead settles in the blood stream it can damage red blood cells, limiting their ability to distribute oxygen to the organs, thus causing anemia. The long-term effects of lead poisoning include:

  • Impaired bone and muscle growth
  • Inadequate muscle coordination
  • Destruction to the nervous system
  • Damage to the kidneys
  • Hearing impairment
  • Speech and language difficulties
  • Developmental delays
  • Seizures
  • Unconsciousness in extreme cases

Causes

Lead is a mineral that occurs naturally. Lead poisoning occurs as a result of exposure to lead levels. Children can get lead poisoning by putting items containing lead into their mouths or swallowing such objects. Additionally, it is possible to get lead poisoning by touching a rusty lead item then putting your fingers into your mouth. It is also possible to inhale lead particles.

Risk Factors

There are many factors that can increase a person’s chances of contracting lead poisoning. Those factors include:

  • Age. Young children and infants are more likely to get lead poisoning. They may put paint chips or items containing lead into their mouths. Young children more easily absorb lead and they often suffer more side effects from lead poisoning than adults.
  • Residing In an Old Home. Older buildings and houses sometimes have lead paint residue or walls coated with lead-based paint.
  • Hobbies. Craftwork that uses lead solder as well as antique furniture restoration may cause a person to become contaminated with lead.
  • Country of Birth. Countries outside of the United States may not have as strict guidelines regarding lead exposure. Therefore, children adopted from other countries may benefit from having their lead levels tested. Additionally, people who reside in developing countries may have a higher risk of lead poisoning.

Diagnostic Tests

Lead poisoning is typically diagnosed through a simple blood test. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend a lead screening be performed for children ages 3 to 6 if:

  • The child has never been tested before.
  • The child’s family receives public assistance.
  • The child resides in or often visits a house built before 1950 or a home built before 1978 that has been renovated recently.
  • The child has a sibling or friend diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Treatment Options

The first step in treatment of lead poisoning is to identify the source of the lead. You can find out how to treat sources of lead by contacting your local department of health. If you have been diagnosed with low levels of lead in your system, reducing exposure can lower the levels significantly. For more severe cases, treatment options include:

  • Chelation Therapy. Your doctor will prescribe a medication that causes the lead to bind within your body and be discarded through urine output.
  • EDTA Therapy. If lead levels have gone beyond 45 mcg/dl of blood, EDTA therapy is necessary. Doctors administer a chemical called EDTA or ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid. This chemical may need to be given more than once to significantly decrease levels of lead in the system. If lead poisoning is too extreme it may not be able to reverse the effects and the person maybe permanently impaired.

Prevention

The best way to protect yourself and your family from lead poisoning is to be sure your home is free from lead. Contact your local department of health and request a lead evaluation in your home. If you are concerned, have your children tested for lead in their blood. Some tips to decrease your risk of lead exposure include:

  • Evaluate your plumbing system. If it is old you may be exposed to contaminated water. Your local department of health can conduct a water test to determine if there is lead present in your drinking water.
  • Wash your children’s hands and toys often and clean dust with a damp cloth.
  • Be sure your children are getting enough iron and calcium in their diets. A balanced diet complete with healthy minerals can reduce the amount of lead that is absorbed in their bodies upon exposure.

Considerations

If you suspect you have lead paint in your home be sure to consult a professional before attempting to remove it. Special precautions will be needed to be sure that the lead is contained and to lessen the risk of inhalation.

Lead poisoning is very harmful to humans, especially young children. Lead exposure at any level can cause health problems. If you suspect you or your children have been exposed to lead consult your doctor and local department of health to determine the best course of action and to have your home evaluated for lead contamination.

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