Lead Poisoning

1 What is Lead Poisoning?

Lead poisoning occurs due to the accumulation of lead in the body, often over a certain period of time ranging from a few months to years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health hazards. Lead may cause severe mental and physical disorders in case of children under the age of 6. It may prove to be fatal, at high doses.

Sources like lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust in older buildings, contaminated air, water and soil may cause lead poisoning.

Although treatments are available for lead poisoning, taking some simple precautions may help you in protecting yourself.

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2 Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of lead poisoning are usually invisible until accumulation of dangerous levels of lead. At an initial stage, lead poisoning might be difficult to detect. Also, people who appear to be completely healthy can have high blood levels of lead in their systems.

Lead poisoning symptoms in the case of children may include: 

  • Developmental disorders
  • Learning difficulties
  • Irritable nature
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss 
  • Fatigue 
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Vomiting 
  • Constipation 
  • Hearing loss

In newborn babies, lead poisoning may lead to growth related disorders.

Symptoms in case of adults may include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Constipation
  • Joint pains
  • Muscle pain
  • Declines in mental functioning
  • Pain
  • Numbness or tingling of the extremities
  • Headache
  • Memory loss
  • Mood disorders
  • Reduced sperm count
  • Abnormal sperm
  • Miscarriages and premature delivery

3 Causes

Lead poisoning is usually caused by months or years of exposure to small amounts of lead at home, work, or day care. 

Lead is a heavy metal usually found as an ingredient in paints, gasoline, water pipes, canned goods and plumbing fixtures.

Although, lead containing paints and canned foods has been banned in many countries, there have been a few cases of lead poisoning due to contaminated water from old pipelines or other sources. Some cases of traditional medicines like greta and azarcon have also been observed to cause lead poisoning. 

Lead-contaminated soil is a major concern around the highways and in some of the urban settings. Traditional cosmetics like kohl often used as eyeliner contain lead in high concentrations.

4 Making a Diagnosis

Doctors usually use a simple blood test to diagnose lead poisoning.

You should consult your doctor if you experience any of the above mentioned symptoms. A blood test can help you determine lead levels in your blood. You can make a list of answers to the following before your appointment:

  1. What are the symptoms or changes experienced by you? 
  2. Do you or your child have other medical issues?
  3. Are you taking other medications or supplements? 

Your doctor might ask you questions like:

  1. Have you recently moved to a different home or a different school?
  2. When was your house built?
  3. Is your house under renovation?
  4. Does your job include exposure to lead?

There is a conflict over the duration and frequency of lead tests to be done in case of children. A level of 5 mcg/dL or higher indicates that your child may be at a risk of lead poisoning and should have his/her blood tested periodically. If levels become too high (45 mcg/dL or higher) your child should be treated.

5 Treatment

The first step in treatment of all levels of lead poisoning is the removal of the source of the contamination. For instance, sometimes it's better to seal in rather than removing old lead paint. Contact your local health department to recommend the ways to identify and reduce lead in your home and community. For children and adults who have relatively low lead levels, simply avoiding exposure to lead might be enough to reduce blood lead levels.

For treatment of higher levels of lead, the doctor may recommend chelation therapy. In this process, the medication binds with the lead in the blood so that it's excreted in your urine. 

EDTA therapy is another therapy used by doctors to treat adults with lead levels greater than 45 mcg/dL of blood. It employs one or more of three drugs, along with a chemical called ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA). Depending on the lead content in your body, you may need more than one treatment. In such severe cases, however, it may not be possible to reverse the damage that has already occurred.

Children may need chelation therapy at lower levels than adults.

6 Prevention

Following measures can be taken to prevent lead poisoning: 

  • Maintain hygiene and wash your hands properly to help reduce the hand-to-mouth transfer of contaminants.
  • Clean dusty surfaces and floors with a damp cloth regularly. 
  • Run cold water through older plumbing that may contain lead pipes or fittings. 
  • Don't use hot tap water to make baby formula or for cooking.
  • Restrict children from playing on the soil. 
  • Eat a healthy diet. 
  • Don't eat or drink in an area where lead dust may be present.

7 Risks and Complications

The risk of lead poisoning may depend on the following factors:

  1. Age: Infants and young children are more likely to be exposed to lead than are older children/adults.
  2. Living in an old house
  3. Hobbies like glass staining requires the use of lead solder which may lead to infestation.
  4. Country of origin: People who live in developing countries are at higher risk of lead poisoning because those countries often have lenient rules regarding exposure to lead.