Lead Poisoning: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatments
Lead exposure in the United States has decreased due to environmental laws that have removed some of the lead in our environment. However, lead poisoning is still a health risk for adults and especially for children. Learn how you and your family can spot the symptoms of lead poisoning and how to avoid exposure.
What Is Lead Poisoning?
Continued exposure to lead over months or years will result in lead poisoning, which can be lethal if untreated. In adults, lead poisoning can lead to numerous health problems including damage to the brain, nervous system, and stomach. When children have high levels of lead in their systems, they can develop problems with growth and learning that will affect them the rest of their lives. Luckily, there are ways to prevent and treat the condition.
Stages and Types of Lead Poisoning
There are many different ways people can be exposed to lead, but there aren't different forms of lead poisoning. The medical community doesn’t define stages of lead poisoning. The condition grows more dangerous as higher levels of lead accumulate in the body.
Symptoms and Causes
A healthy-looking person can have low levels of lead in their system. Symptoms don’t usually show until high amounts of lead have accumulated. Symptoms will vary between adults and children.
When an adult has lead poisoning, these are the possible symptoms.
- High blood pressure
- Joint or muscle pain
- Abdominal pain
- Mood changes
- Trouble with memory or concentration
- Reproductive issues including reduced sperm count in men and stillbirth, miscarriage or premature birth in pregnant women
Lead is a neurotoxin, meaning it is destructive to nerve tissue. It’s even more dangerous for children because it affects a child’s brain and nervous system while they are still developing. At low levels, brain function may change in subtle ways, creating symptoms such as:
- Behavioral problems
- Learning problems
- Fatigue or weakness
- Low energy
- Weight loss
- Problems sleeping
As lead continues to accumulate, symptoms are more severe:
- Kidney malfunction
- Hearing loss
- Delayed development, or losing already established skills
- Growth delays
Often, the earliest noticeable symptom is stomach pain and cramping. Very high levels of lead in a child’s body can cause vomiting, muscle weakness, seizures and even coma.
Both adults and children get lead poisoning from exposure to lead in their environment. However, the causes of that exposure are typically different.
For example, one of the biggest sources of lead exposure in children is paint with lead in it because small children may eat peeling paint or chew on a painted surface. A house that was painted before 1978 almost certainly has lead paint in it. After 1978, legislation prohibited manufacturers from using lead in their paint formulas.
Typically, adults will come into contact with lead at work or when participating in a hobby. Here are some examples.
- Contractors who renovate property that was built before 1978
- Workers in firing ranges or as gunsmiths or police
- Manufacturing workers of bullets, ceramics, electronics or some types of jewelry
- Hobbyists who make fishing sinkers, do home renovations or shoot at indoor firing ranges
Most lead poisoning in children is the result of contact with lead-based paint on home interiors and exteriors, but there are many other potential sources of lead in a child’s world.
- Furniture or toys painted before 1978
- Water that flows through lead pipes or plumbing fixtures soldered with lead
- Imported food cans that were sealed with lead solder
- Toys, especially those produced overseas
- Household dust that may contain lead brought in from outdoors
- Vending machine toy jewelry
Prevention and Risks
The goal of prevention is to eliminate exposure to lead before any harm is done. Toward that end, there are things you can do.
- Keep paint in good repair. If your home or apartment was built before 1978, lead-based paint will become a problem if the paint cracks, peels or deteriorates in any way, which will expose the lead-based paint even if new coats of paint cover it.
- Renovate carefully. If you are making repairs or renovating a home that was built before 1978, it’s best if children and pregnant women stay out of the construction area. Even helping to sweep up construction dust could be a source of lead exposure.
- Wash hands and toys regularly. Toys, soil and other things your children are exposed to could contain lead. Regular hand washing will help eliminate sources of lead as well as bacteria and other germs.
- Follow OSHA guidelines. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the federal agency that enforces health and safety legislation. If your job puts you at risk, follow OSHA guidelines for avoiding exposure.
The risk of developing lead poisoning increases based on:
- Age. Children, especially very young children, are more likely to get lead poisoning than adults are because they absorb lead more readily, and their developing bodies are more sensitive.
- Living in an older home. Older homes and buildings can have residue from a time when lead-based paint was in use.
- Some jobs and hobbies. People who work or participate in hobbies that expose them to lead.
Diagnosis and Tests
Blood tests are used to spot unsafe levels of lead. Your pediatrician may recommend that you test your children’s lead levels during normal checkups. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends testing at one and two years of age.
Any lead in the blood is considered unhealthy, but a level of 5 mcg/dL is an indicator of a potentially unsafe level for children. For both children and adults, a level of 10 mcg/dL is considered elevated. The measurement indicates micrograms (mcg) of lead per deciliter (dL) of blood.
Treatment, Procedures, and Medication
The first step in treatment is to remove the source of the lead exposure. For children and adults with very low levels of lead in their blood, that may be the only thing that is required to reduce their levels.
When treatment is required, your doctor may recommend:
- Chelation Therapy. For this treatment, the patient swallows a medication that binds with lead and allows it to be removed from the body during urination.
- EDTA Chelation Therapy. This treatment involves injections of calcium disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA).
Healthy Lifestyle Tips
There are no specific healthy lifestyle changes required to prevent or treat lead poisoning, but you must find and remove the source of exposure to lead.
Eating a healthy diet at regular meal times may help in lowering the rate of lead absorption. In particular, make sure children get enough calcium, vitamin C and iron in their diets.
Healthy diets consist of eating foods from the five main food groups: whole grains, fruits and vegetables, protein, dairy, and fat and sugar. A healthy diet is also balanced, meaning that you put emphasis on the first four groups while controlling your intake of fat and sugar.
Lead poisoning is a real threat to children and adults alike. Make sure you know if you or other adults in your family are involved in work environments or hobbies that include lead exposure and take steps to reduce the risk. Children should be tested early since there are no real warning signs of lead poisoning until some damage is already done. With some care and awareness, you may never have a case of lead poisoning in your family.
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