What You Must Know About Lead Poisoning
The stories about the high lead levels in the water supply of Flint, Michigan have brought the problem of lead poisoning front and center.
According to experts from the Mayo Clinic, those at greatest risk of health problems, including serious brain and kidney damage, are children. But adults can be vulnerable as well.
Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up, usually over time, in the body. Even small amounts can cause serious damage.
“Lead is a toxin to the human body and especially harmful to children due to their developing brain and nervous system,” says Dr. Marcie Billings, a pediatrician with Mayo Clinic’s Children’s Center. “Lead can affect almost any system in the body but in children can have the most serious effects on the neurological system including poor concentration, behavioral issues, effect on IQ, effect on academic achievement, developmental delay, and in most severe cases, encephalopathy.”
The most common sources of lead are lead-based paint Lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust in older buildings are the most common sources of lead poisoning in children. Other sources include water pipes; imported canned goods; contaminated air, water and soil and some imported toys. And adults who work with batteries, do home renovations or work in auto repair shops also may be exposed to lead, according to Mayo.
Here, the Mayo experts share symptoms of lead poisoning for both children and adults:
For children: developmental delay; learning difficulties; irritability; loss of appetite; weight loss; sluggishness and fatigue; abdominal pain; vomiting; constipation; hearing loss.
For adults: high blood pressure; abdominal pain; constipation; joint pain; muscle pain; decline in mental functioning; pain, numbness or tingling; headache; memory loss; mood disorders; reduced sperm count or abnormal sperm; miscarriage or premature birth.
To protect yourself, the Mayo experts advise that you:
Check your house. If your home was built before 1978, it could be likely to contain lead. Look into professional cleaning, paint stabilization and repairs – done by a contractor familiar with the problem. If you want to buy an older home, the Mayo expert say, have it checked for lead. Don’t try to remove paint yourself, the experts caution; don’t use sanding or a blow torch.
Don’t let children near contaminated windows. That includes old windows, old porches, dirt next to an old home, or areas with chipping or peeling paint; additionally, avoid old window putty that is flaking or chipping.
Filter your water. Use ion exchange filters, reverse osmosis filters and distillation. If you don’t use a filte, run cold water 30 seconds before using. If you don’t have a filter and live in an older home, run cold tap water for 15 to 30 seconds before using it. (Editor’s note: Of course, in situations such as Flint, with a highly contaminated water system, such methods will not work.)
Keep your home clean. Wipe floors and other surfaces with a damp mop, the Mayo experts say.
Practice good hygiene. All family members should wash their hands after being outside, having contact with pets and before eating and sleeping. The Mayo experts suggest regularly washing children’s toys, which may become contaminated from soil or household dust.
Eat well. A diet high in calcium and iron may decrease a child’s absorption of lead.
A simple blood test can confirm the presence of lead in the body, the Mayo experts say. The treatments include removing the source of lead as well as chelation therapy (taking a medication that binds with the lead so that it is excreted in urine.
Another treatment, EDTA therapy, is given to adults with with one or more of three drugs, most commonly a chemical called EDTA. More than one treatment may be needed, Mayo experts say. Depending on your lead level, you may need more than one treatment. In such severe cases, however, it may not be possible to reverse damage that has already occurred.
For more about health issues, visit www.mayoclinic.org.