A tragedy took place in Flint, Michigan involving lead poisoning. Since the presence of dangerous levels of lead is not limited to Flint, it behooves us all to become more familiar with the potential hazards of lead exposure and how to avoid it.
What exactly is lead poisoning?
Lead poisoning results from ingesting products containing lead. These products can include paint, water, food, dust or cosmetic products. As we have witnessed in the Flint tragedy, children’s exposure to lead is devastating and a serious health risk. It causes permanent damage, including delays in growth, development, behavior, hearing, intelligence and the ability to learn. Most of these changes are irreversible.
In adults, lead can damage organs including the kidneys, brain, and gastrointestinal system. Inside the body, lead interferes with brain development and the transmission of neural signals. It can damage and cause impairment to any organ and interfere with the development of blood and its ability to deliver oxygen to the rest of the body. High levels of lead in children and adults can cause death.
Lead is a naturally occurring substance in the earth. We all have small quantities in our bodies, although the goal is to have none.
What causes lead poisoning?
The cause of lead poisoning is prolonged exposure to low levels of lead or sudden, high exposure to lead. Many common products contain lead including paint, dust, water, soil, cosmetics, gasoline (not in the U.S.), foods, plumbing, and manufactured goods. Lead is also found in pottery and stained glass production.
The most common source of lead exposure in children is paint containing lead. Young children are at higher risk of lead exposure because they often put objects in their mouth, and the lead is quickly absorbed into their rapidly developing bodies.
Lead was once included in gas to reduce wear on engines, make the fuel perform better, and prevent engines from knocking. It is now illegal to put lead in gasoline in the United States. In other countries, especially China, lead is not as regulated and is found in many products imported from these countries.
Lead is often found in homes built before 1978 when using lead-based paint was common. Lead is added to paint to reduce the cost, make the colors more vivid, and make the color more opaque so fewer coats are needed.
Pipes carrying water and plumbing also use lead to solder. This is what happened in the Flint tragedy, poisoning thousands of children and adults. Old plumbing was used containing lead-soldered pipes to deliver water to Flint residents, gradually poisoning thousands of people.
Historically, chronic lead exposure was a job risk for hat-makers. The gradual lead exposure caused people to lose their mind, hence the famous term in the popular child’s story “Alice in Wonderland” calling a person “The ‘Mad’ Hatter.”
What are symptoms of lead poisoning?
Lead poisoning symptoms can be subtle and develop slowly. In children, symptoms can include:
- Low IQ
- Hearing problems
- Behavioral problems
- Difficulty learning
- Memory problems
- Decrease in strength
- In severe cases: seizures, paralysis and death
How is lead poisoning diagnosed?
Diagnosing lead poisoning is challenging because the symptoms are subtle and vague. If you suspect lead poisoning, a diagnostic blood test is used.
How is lead poisoning treated?
- Remove all lead exposure
- Proper diet
- Chelation therapy (extreme cases) in which medicines are used to bind the lead and eliminate it.
The best way to treat lead poisoning is prevention. Unfortunately, many of the intellectual, organ and developmental problems resulting from lead exposure are permanent and irreversible. If you have concerns about lead exposure or poisoning, home test kits are available for use with paint and tap water.
Be careful with hobbies that may increase exposure to lead, including making stained glass, pottery, auto repair, industrial painting, building restoration, and lead-based weights used in fishing. Know the source of your cosmetics and children’s toys.
If you have additional health concerns about lead poisoning, be sure to discuss it with your doctor.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the U.S. by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians, MABP.org.