Get the lead out!
"Hence gout and stone afflict the human race;Hence lazy jaundice with her saffron face;Palsy, with shaking head and tottering knees.And bloated dropsy, the staunch sot's disease;Consumption, pale, with keen but hollow eye,And sharpened feature, showed that death was nigh.The feeble offspring curse their crazy sires,And, tainted from his birth, the youth expires."
Description of lead poisoning by an anonymous Roman hermit, translated by Humelbergius Secundus, 1829
The Leaded History
Oh lead. What is it? Lead is a soft and malleable blue grey metal that has been mined for millennia for it's use in everything from paint and pottery to makeup and plumbing. In fact, the very word "plumbing" comes from the Latin word for lead, "plumbum." For a long time in the modern era it was added to gasoline to help minimize engines knocking. The ancients regarded lead as the father of all metals. The god associated with lead was Saturn (who was no angel and was known to devour his own young). In fact, the word "saturnine" applies to a person who has become gloomy, cynical, and socially withdrawn, all of which are associated with lead poisoning. The Romans lived in a lead heyday and used it extensively in food and industry despite being aware that it could cause serious health effects. They figured that small amounts could only cause small harm. What they didn't know was that lead is not processed through the body, but rather builds up in tissues, especially bones, and even a small amount on an ongoing basis can lead to toxicity.
Lead in America dates back to the earliest colonial times. The first lead mine and forge was set up in Virginia in 1621 and by the twentieth century the US was the leading producer of lead in the world. By 1980 the US was consuming 1.3 million tons of lead per year which was roughly 40% of worldwide supply and which amounted to 5,221 grams of lead per person in America at the time. For comparison, despite the Roman's love of lead they were only at 550 grams per person per year. The primary form in which Americans were consuming lead had to do with our ongoing love of automotive travel. Starting in 1923 (with a brief interruption in 1925) Americans began their love affair with tetraethyl lead, informally known as "ethyl." GM, the developers of this anti-knock formula, soon began touting ethyl as the best thing since sliced bread. This quickly turned to controversy as one of the original engineers fell ill, followed soon after by the death of 15
workers in a tetraethyl lead
manufacturing plant. Journalists at the time began calling it "looney
gas" and the Surgeon General of the US put a temporary ban on leaded
gasoline in 1925 for full investigation into the health effects. Despite 7
months of investigation, industry trumped and the final conclusion of the
report was that there were "no good grounds for prohibiting the use of
ethyl gasoline…as a motor fu le,
provided that its distribution and use are controlled by proper
regulations." Oddly enough, even after this proclamation no mandatory
regulations of any real significance were put in place for lead sales and
manufacturing until 1975 when the EPA began it's slow phase out of the chemical
additive. In only the first 7 years of this regulation, lead levels in the air
dropped a whopping 64%. Although lead is still added in small amounts to some
gasoline (the "leaded" vs "unleaded") the amount is
miniscule compared to years past.
Where is it found?
Besides the automotive industry discussed in depth above, lead can be found in a variety of places. One of the lingering and most problematic routes of exposure is paint. Prior to 1978 lead was widely used in paint. While much of this paint has long since been painted over, anywhere where there's a hole in the wall or chipping paint can provide access. With kids being the little "put everything in my mouth" monsters that they are, the old question of "did you eat paint chips as a kid?" becomes more understandable and relevant. Additionally, when those sweet little munchkins are crawling around they are more vulnerable to airborne heavy metals in dust particles that tend to settle lower down. Some other potential sources of lead include: some cosmetics, miniblinds, artistic painting, stained glass, pottery glazing, soldering, bullets, fishing sinkers, lead in water from old pipes, brass faucets, computers, pewter, jewelry, auto batteries, imported or older pre-regulation products, and soil along roadways (from leaded gasoline). Work exposure is also an issue. Some high risk occupations include lead smelting and mining, construction/remodeling, auto repair, anyone who works with firearms, and plumbers.
The best test for lead is a blood assessment. Many regions offer free or discounted blood lead level testing for kids and pregnant/lactating women. The CDC defines a "level of concern" in children as anything over 5 mcg/dl (a recent lowering from 10 mcg/dl). The CDC recommends testing children at age 1-2 years and then continuing with annual testing until age 6 for kids at higher risk of lead contamination.
Since this is a mama blog I will be focusing on the effects of lead on kiddos. Kids absorb lead 3x more than adults and as such, they show signs of lead more quickly. They also are rapidly developing and as lead can have a significant effect on development of tissues it is even more critical in this population. The CDC estimates that 4 million households in the US that have children in them have high levels of lead and that of those, 1.5 million children have blood lead levels above 5 mcg/dL, which is the level at which the CDC recommends action.
Lead can affect every system in the body, but it's actions often come on subtly and can easily go unrecognized. Lead's effect on the developing brain and nervous system is the largest concern as neurologic effects have been documented below 10mcg/dL. Low exposure effects that have been documented include lowered IQ, decreased verbal ability, attention deficit, constipation, abdominal pain, low energy, headache, and hearing and speech impairment. High level effects include irritability, severe abdominal pain, kidney damage, swelling in the brain, tremor, vomiting seizures, coma, and death. These are not things we want any of our kids going through
if it is a preventable issue . How
many of those low level symptoms do kids exhibit who get diagnosed with
learning disorders or ADHD? What if there is a real and treatable reason why
they are behaving that way?
Lead can also cross the placenta and can affect viability of the developing fetus. Lead also affects the endocrine (hormone) system and chronic exposure may affect thyroid function and vitamin D levels. Lead also increases the risk of developing high blood pressure and can lead to anemia. With significant exposure there is also the concept of a "lead line" which can sometimes be seen as a blue line along the gums in the mouth or as a bright white line at the ends of bones on an X-ray, demonstrating how the body stores away lead in the bones of developing children.
What can be done?
The number one way to avoid lead poisoning is education. Parents (or parents-to-be) living in older homes need to be educated about all the ways that lead exposure can happen and conduct testing to minimize it's effects. Washing kid's hands and toys regularly with soap and water can help to reduce dust containing lead from reaching their mouths. Assume that any old paint may have lead in it. Test your water to find out if lead is an issue and consider a filter which can remove heavy metals. Eating a diet high in iron and calcium (yay for leafy greens!) can help to displace lead. If a child does test positive for lead, there are treatment options available through qualified physicians to help remove the lead from the body, but prevention (as in most cases) is far better than the treatment. Here are a few specific ideas to help minimize exposure:
Water: The hard thing about exposure in water is that, converse to some other water contaminants, boiling the water can actually concentrate the lead more. What is typically recommended is running COLD water for a few minutes to flush out standing water in old pipes. Many regions offer free or low cost lead water testing. In Portland, Oregon there are multiple resources including free water testing and free blood testing for kids and pregnant/lactating women. Take advantage of resources! Knowledge is power to change your risks. There are also a multitude of water filters out there tha
can filter out heavy metals for drinking and cooking water.
Paint: If you, like me, live in an older house this is particularly concerning. Since lead was only an issue in paint made before 1978, newer homes are less risky. In my house, the old paint has been long painted over but… what happens when I hang a nail or when a misguided toy takes a chunk out of the wall? Painting over any holes is the easiest prevention, but should you remodel an older home it is well worth getting a professional to do the paint stripping or at least giving you a consult on how to minimize exposure. My home also has a rock border around the old flower garden with whitewashed rocks. Since they look ancient I can only assume that they were painted with leaded paint and we try to avoid allowing our munchkin to play in the soil near these rocks.
Workplace: Bless OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). These are the wonderful people (who often get written off for intrusive busybodies) who try to make work a safe environment for all. All businesses should have a
n health and safety officer who
conducts regular OSHA trainings to help minimize risks, but if this isn't happening and toxic exposure is a concern,
any worker can contact OSHA directly to request resources or to file an
anonymous or urgent complaint. The contact form can be found here: https://www.osha.gov/html/Feed_Back.html No one deserves to have their health put in jeopardy for a job, but
reality dictates that many people are unknowingly exposed for the sake of a
buck. OSHA can be the third party who steps in and steps up for the working men
and women who deserve good health.
For additional resources, talk with your physician or local county health department as this is a nationwide movement to get the lead out! Lets protect our kids from this toxic metal and improve all our health.
1. Heavy Metal Notes from Environmental Medicine Class, Fall, 2014