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Diseases & Conditions : Environmental Medicine

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Lead Poisoning

The danger of lead poisoning:

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, lead poisoning, once a major environmental health hazard, has declined greatly in the past two to three decades. In 1978, elevated levels of lead in the blood occurred in three million to four million children in the U.S. However, that number decreased to approximately 310,000 children poisoned each year, and the number continues to decrease.

The Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention states that children with the highest risk of having elevated blood lead levels live in metropolitan areas and in housing built before 1978. Additional risk factors include being from low-income families and being of African-American or Hispanic origin.

What causes lead poisoning?

Ingesting dust from deteriorating lead-based paint is the most common cause of lead poisoning among children. Currently, about 74 percent of public and privately owned housing units built before 1980 contain some lead-based paint. Other sources of lead poisoning are dust and soil that are contaminated with lead from old paint and from past emissions of leaded gasoline, tap water in homes that have lead pipes, paint, and dust chips from old toys, furniture, and certain hobby materials.

In early 2005, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a new policy addressing lead in children’s metal jewelry. There have been cases where children who swallowed or repeatedly sucked on jewelry items containing lead developed high blood lead levels. Since 2004, the Commission has recalled over 150 million pieces of toy jewelry that were sold in vending machines and through other outlets.

Who is at risk for lead poisoning?

The following persons are most at risk for lead poisoning:

  • Children between the ages of 1 and 3

  • Children in low-income families

  • African-Americans

  • Mexican Americans

  • Persons living in large metropolitan areas

  • Persons living in older housing

  • Persons living in housing built before 1978

What are the effects of lead in the body?

If not detected early, children with high levels of lead in their bodies can suffer from the following:

  • Damage to the brain and nervous system

  • Behavior and learning problems

  • Slowed growth

  • Hearing problems

  • Headaches

  • Anemia

  • Seizures

In adults, lead poisoning may cause the following:

  • Difficulties during pregnancy

  • Reproductive problems in both men and women

  • High blood pressure

  • Digestive disorders

  • Memory and concentration problems

  • Muscle and joint pain

High levels of lead may also cause seizures, coma, and death. The symptoms of lead poisoning may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

How is lead poisoning detected?

A simple blood test can detect high levels of lead in the body. It is important for persons, especially children under 2 years of age and/or persons living in an older home to have the blood test.