5 Things to Know About Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning is a serious and pervasive condition that can impact anyone in domestic, professional or social contexts. However, the consequences of a toxic level of systemic lead are greater for some than others. Because lead occurs both naturally and as a result of manufacturing processes, we’ve compiled a list of five things to know about poisoning with the goal of education and prevention.

1. No Safe Levels

Unlike many substances to which we may be exposed, there is no level considered safe. Any amount of lead in the blood may be toxic and cause side effects. While awareness of potential sources of toxic lead is greater than in the past, poisoning can occur in many contexts. In homes, schools or businesses, lead-based paints are one of the chief sources of contamination. Similarly, municipal water supply systems in drastic need of an upgrade deliver often-toxic doses of lead to vulnerable populations. Other avenues of exposure include candy manufactured in other countries, toys, costume jewelry, artificial turf not made exclusively of polyethylene, and folk medicines.

2. Ancient Arts and Crafts

Because lead has a low melting point, is easy to obtain, and bonds well in carbon metal compounds, it’s a familiar source of ancient lead poisoning. Use in jewelry, edifices, and everyday items dates to 8,000 years before present in Anatolia. However, it was a known agent of toxicity in the Greek city-states, where it was a common ingredient in the whitening cosmetics worn by noble men.

Rome is perhaps the greatest example of self-poisoning, and it is the Latin word for lead that we take our word for plumbing. However, they employed the metal in a variety of contexts, from the production of wine and cosmetics to smelting currency and weaponry. It’s thought that lead toxicity was a chief source of infertility, mental disorders, and ultimately political collapse in the Roman Empire.

3. Vulnerable Populations

The CDC reports that more than four million households in the United States expose children to dangerous levels of lead. Over 500,000 children under the age of five exhibit blood levels of lead exceeding five micrograms per deciliter, an amount that calls for public health action. Statistics indicate that lead exposure is a matter of economic privilege.

4. Where Demographics Overlap

The most vulnerable populations are those of lower socioeconomic status who live and work in places where lead is present in significant amounts, such as recent immigrants, impoverished communities, and historically disadvantaged ethnic minorities. Children of these populations are exposed via outdated plumbing, homes with carpet and paint containing high levels of lead, candy and toys imported from other countries that use lead in manufacturing, and environmental saturation due to industrial processes.

5. The Most Prevalent Signs

While early stages of poisoning are difficult to discern, the most frequent symptoms in children fall into a few main categories. Children who exhibit cognitive or developmental difficulties, seizures, sluggishness, digestive upsets, loss of appetite, hearing loss, weight loss, and extreme irritability. In adults, symptoms are often masked because they mimic those of other conditions. Irritability, joint pain, hypertension, difficulty remembering, mood disorders, infertility, miscarriage, and headaches are the most frequent warning signs of systemic toxicity.

Toxicity goes largely unaddressed because the populations it impacts are underprivileged. However, other populations are at risk as well and should educate themselves on the signs of poisoning. Because the developmental damage is irreversible, health organizations and physicians advocate for aggressive policing of contexts in which lead is present and greater access to medical treatment for populations most vulnerable to lead poisoning.