Lead is extremely poisonous and can be hazardous when ingested or inhaled. There is no “safe” level of lead exposure. The smallest amounts can cause severe health problems; at very high levels, it can be fatal.
Lead exposure can cause numerous developmental issues for children that can lead to physical and mental complications including behavior or attention problems, hearing problems, kidney damage, learning disabilities, reduced IQ and stunted growth.
Kids under the age of 6 are particularly at risk for lead poisoning, and it can harm babies long before they are born – the younger the child, the more detrimental lead exposure can be.
While it is more common and harmful for children, adults are also at risk. Millions of workers in the United States – particularly those who work on home renovations or auto repairs – are under threat of toxic lead exposure. For adults, it could cause increased blood pressure, nerve disorders, irritability, fertility issues and memory problems.
Recognize the Signs
Unfortunately, the presence of lead in the bloodstream is difficult to detect until dangerous amounts have accumulated. It’s an invisible poison. Lead poisoning usually occurs gradually, through repeated exposure to small amounts of over a long period of time.
Lead exposure can affect almost every system in the human body. Its effects can manifest in a number of different symptoms, although they are not always obvious indicators of instances of poisoning. Symptoms may include:
- Abdominal pain and cramping (this is usually the first sign of a high and toxic dose of lead in the body)
- Aggressive behavior
- Difficulty getting pregnant
- Difficulty sleeping
- Hearing loss
- Loss of previous developmental skills
- Low appetite and energy
High levels of lead may even cause vomiting, difficulty walking, muscle weakness, seizures or coma.
Treating Toxic Lead Exposure
The only way to know if you or your child has been exposed to a toxic dose is through a blood lead test. Your physician can advise you on what steps to take and recommend treatments based on the test results.
Obviously, children with elevated blood lead levels should be kept away from any and all possible sources of exposure to it. Severe cases of poisoning may require chelation therapy. This procedure involves taking a medication that binds with the lead so it’s excreted in urine.
Lead Poisoning is Preventable!
Ingesting, touching or inhaling lead can cause the substance to enter and stay in the body. Avoiding contact with lead can help reduce the risk of poisoning from it. Because lead cannot be seen or smelled, it is difficult to spot the substance in an environment. However, you can help protect yourself and your loved ones by being familiar with some of the most common sources of lead exposure so you know what to look out for and avoid:
- Lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust, which is often found in houses built before 1978 (when paint containing lead became banned in the United States). Kids and expecting moms should not be present in these older homes when they are being renovated. Toys, furniture, decorations and canned goods made outside the U.S. or before 1976
- Lead bullets, fishing sinkers and curtain weights
- Pipes, plumbing fixtures and faucets soldered with lead, which can contaminate water
- Contaminated soil, usually along highways and near houses
- Pewter pitchers and dinnerware
There are also simple day-to-day precautions that can be taken to help keep your kids safe from lead poisoning:
- Wash children’s hands regularly, especially after playing outside and before eating and going to bed.
- Regularly wash all toys.
- Mop floors and wet-wipe window components every 2 to 3 weeks.
- When entering the house, remove shoes and leave them outside to prevent bringing lead-contaminated soil indoors.
- If you have older plumbing that may contain lead, use only cold tap water for drinking, making baby formula and cooking.
- Do not allow kids to play on bare soil (it may be contaminated with lead).
- Help children maintain healthy eating habits. Balanced nutrition can help lower the likelihood of lead absorption.
- Avoid using containers and cookware that are not clearly marked as lead free.
The key to protecting your family from the hazards of lead is to avoid it altogether. Prevent toxic lead exposure before you ever have to treat it.
Dr. Hunaid Gurji is a pediatrician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Fort Bend Medical and Diagnostic Center. In addition to his medical degree, he has a doctorate in philosophy. Dr. Gurji’s clinical interests include high-risk patients and those with cardiopulmonary issues.