A preventable condition caused by environmental exposure, lead poisoning can produce lasting health implications, particularly in kids. When lead is present at exceptionally high levels, death can occur. Elevated levels of lead in the blood is how lead poisoning is detected.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that over 500,000 kids in the U.S. aged 1-5 have lead in their blood at a level higher than five micro-grams per deciliter, which is the level the CDC has deemed dangerous. It is worth noting as well that the CDC has found no genuinely safe level for lead in the bloodstreams of children.
A corrosion-resistant, soft metal, lead exists in small amounts across the environment. Before 1978, lead was used in countless household products such as paint, piping, gasoline, food canning materials, and more. It was also found in pesticides designed for use in fruit orchards. Such applications have since been banned in the U.S., and there is much closer monitoring of lead use. However, the metal continues to be utilized in a range of hobbies and industrial production methods.
Tiny lead particles can find their way inside the human body via ingestion of lead-containing dust or normal inhalation. Once it reaches the intestines or the lungs, lead courses through the blood and is pumped through vital organs. Eventually, lead will move to the teeth and bones, where it can remain for years and years. Over 90% of the lead in adult bodies and 73% of the lead in children ultimately rests in their bones. To eliminate lead, the body gradually withdraws it from the bones and expels it through normal waste products. Lead can go through re-mobilization where it returns to the organs and the bloodstream during pregnancy or when a bone is fractured. Lead can be passed between mother and unborn fetus and from mother to infant via breastfeeding. Expectant mothers and unborn babies who have had lead exposure are at risk of miscarriage or premature birth.
Lead Exposure Risk Factors
An individual’s susceptibility to lead exposure damage is dependent in large part on the duration of exposure, their age, and their general health status. Anyone suffering from malnourishment or iron deficiency can be prone to accelerated absorption of lead.
The children of expectant mothers who have had lead exposure will be at a higher risk of developmental delays and growth concerns.
Babies and kids who experience lead exposure may be at risk of:
- Learning delays
- Developmental problems
- Mood disorders
- Poor appetite
- Failure to thrive
- Fatigue/low energy
- Stomach pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Hearing impairment
Kids under six years of age tend to be most vulnerable to lead exposure. This because they commonly place their hands in their mouths, providing a pathway for lead-tainted dust and chipped paint. They may also easily inhale lead dust or chew things that have lead contamination. They may also be exposed through lead-tainted drinking water sources.
Homes constructed before 1978 may feature lead-based paint products and be full of contaminated dust. It is also possible for the soil around such homes to serve as another source of possible exposure.
Lead exposure in adults tends to come from recreational or occupational types of scenarios. Kids and other family members of those who come into frequent contact with lead can suffer from contamination simply because such materials come into the household through soiled clothing or shoes.
Occupational settings known for lead exposure risk include:
- Construction sites
- Lead smelting plants
- Welding sites
- Bridge repair sites
- Refinishing and remodeling jobs
- Firing ranges
- Metal recycling centers
- Auto mechanic shops
- Cable splicing sites
Hobbies known to boost lead exposure risk include:
- Fabricating fishing sinkers or bullets
- Remodeling pre-1978 structures
- Soldering work
- Auto repair tasks
- Working with stained glass
- Working with pottery glazes
- Painting with pigmented products
- Making “moonshine” in lead containers
It is also possible for folk remedies, traditional medicines, cosmetic products, toys, dietary supplements, inexpensive jewelry, and imported canned food to contain unhealthy amounts of lead. Healthcare workers ought to think about screening individuals from foreign countries for lead exposure, as they are more likely to be at heightened risk. It is important to be aware of potentially hidden sources of lead contamination.
Symptoms Of Lead Exposure
Numerous parts of the human body can be impacted by lead poisoning. Just one excessive dose is capable of wreaking real havoc and may even prove deadly. But it is more likely the case that lead will have built up gradually in the body due to ongoing exposure to small doses of lead. In such scenarios, symptoms may be quite subtle, but the impact can grow more severe as blood lead levels rise.
Children tend to suffer greater harm from lead exposure than adults do, simply because lead impacts their developing systems. Younger children are at the greatest degree of risk.
For adults, lead poisoning symptoms can include:
- Abdominal discomfort
- Cognitive decline
- Joint pain
- Memory loss
- Fertility problems
- Miscarriage in pregnant females
- Vomiting, seizures and inability to balance, in cases of high-level exposure
Testing Methods For Lead Poisoning
Blood tests can be performed to measure the level of lead present in the body. This can be done by taking a sample from a single arm vein, but it is sometimes done by taking blood from a heel stick or finger stick. Finger stick samples that prove abnormal will usually cause a vein draw to be done as a method of confirming the prior result. A blood test will provide a glimpse of the current level of lead present in the blood at a given moment. They help assess chronic as well as acute lead exposure. This type of test is also useful in screening for potential lead exposure and for measuring whether treatment methods are working.
In children, a lead level of more than 20 mcg/dL may prompt a healthcare worker to seek a hematocrit or hemoglobin test to learn whether that child is suffering from a potentially dangerous iron deficiency. If such a concern is identified, corrective measures can be initiated immediately, potentially staving off additional sources of lasting harm.
For adults, a zinc protoporphyrin (also known as ZPP) test is often ordered together with a lead level test to measure chronic exposure. Those who engage in hobbies where lead exposure is common, and those who live in older homes may be prone to lead poisoning. Occupational settings can also lead to greater risk. In such scenarios, it is wise to utilize the ZPP testing method to keep track of lead exposure levels. ZPP testing does not indicate acute exposure, and it only reflects gradual change. It is, therefore, best for assessing exposure levels over several months. This type of test is insufficiently sensitive for screening for lead poisoning in children, however, because readings will not rise until blood concentrations of lead have gone over the range considered to be safe.