What You Should Know About Lead Poisoning

Causes, Symptoms and Treatment of Lead Toxicity

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If you or your child has been diagnosed with lead toxicity, or if you think that you or your child might have lead toxicity, there are some important steps you can take to avoid the long-term health problems that are known to result from lead toxicity.

What Is Lead Toxicity?

Lead toxicity, also often referred to as lead poisoning, is the presence of lead in the body. Lead is a metal, and it is not a material that should be in the body or that is useful for the human body.

Yet, there are some circumstances that result in lead entering the body.

When lead gets into the human body from the environment, many of the body's organs become damaged, which results in serious health problems. Lead causes these health problems when the level of lead in the body becomes very high very fast or when lead remains in the body for a prolonged period of time.

Lead toxicity is not uncommon, as it affects hundreds of thousands of children and adults worldwide each year, sometimes even causing death. Most of the time, lead toxicity can be diagnosed and treated before it causes severe and irreversible consequences.

Signs and Symptoms of Lead Toxicity

Lead causes damage to several of the body's organ systems, and therefore there are a number of physical signs of lead toxicity that you might begin to notice. If you experience any of the early signs, you should not ignore them because, eventually, the late effects may develop.

The health problems caused by lead toxicity can become permanent, and the chances of recovery are best if the lead toxicity is promptly diagnosed and treated. Your doctor will be able to get you the right tests and treatment for lead toxicity in a reasonable amount of time.

Early signs of lead toxicity include:

  • Irritability
  • Moodiness and depression
  • Behavioral problems
  • Stomachaches and/or vomiting
  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep problems
  • Trouble concentrating and/or thinking
  • Jitteriness
  • Tingling sensation

Late effects of lead toxicity include:

  • Balance and coordination problems
  • Physical weakness and fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Anemia (low levels and function or red blood cells)
  • Hearing loss
  • High blood pressure
  • Seizures
  • Kidney damage
  • Male infertility
  • Problems with pregnancy, such as miscarriage, premature birth, or low birth weight
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Coma
  • Death

How Is Lead Toxicity Diagnosed?

Lead is a material that can be detected and measured in the blood through a blood test. Your doctor can order a blood lead level if there is a chance that you have lead toxicity. You would need to have your blood drawn and sent to a lab for testing. Results typically take less than a week. Normal blood levels of lead should be zero.

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issue guidelines for lead levels that correspond to suggested public intervention, suggested removal from the work environment, and so forth.

There are also signs of lead poisoning that can be seen on bone x-rays, but this is not a typical method used to diagnose lead toxicity, as the blood tests are considered more reliable and more sensitive for early detection of elevated lead levels.

Some people do not develop signs and symptoms of lead toxicity until levels became very elevated, and therefore your doctor might order blood tests if you or your child has a high environmental risk for lead toxicity.

What Are the Causes of Lead Toxicity?

Lead can enter your body from the environment. The most direct route is through eating or drinking a substance that contains lead. But, lead can enter the body through the skin or through inhalation as well.

The most common causes of lead toxicity include:

  • Inhaling or ingesting (getting into the mouth or swallowing) industrial or art materials that contain lead
  • Excessive skin exposure and/or contact with industrial or art materials that contain lead
  • Pollution from factories leading to excessive inhalation of lead
  • Exposure to toys, products, and consumer items that may contain excessive lead
  • Some Ayurvedic medications

How Is Lead Toxicity Treated?

Chelation therapy: There is treatment for lead toxicity. This treatment is called chelation therapy. Chelation therapy is a medication that is taken to bind to and remove the lead from the blood. There are several different medications that can be used for chelation therapy to treat lead toxicity. These include succimer (dimercaptosuccinic acid), D-penicillamine, Edetate (EDTA) calcium disodium, dimercaprol and others.

However, while chelation therapy is usually effective, it does have side effects. Therefore, it is not recommended for everyone, and chelation therapy is typically recommended when lead levels are above a dangerous threshold.

Systemic treatment: In addition to chelation therapy, you should expect your medical issues associated with lead toxicity to also be monitored and treated. Your kidney function and red blood cell level will be assessed and treated if necessary. Symptoms such as dehydration, headaches, and seizures may also require medical management while your lead level is being managed.

Reduce exposure to lead: This seemingly obvious step can be harder than it sounds. Sometimes, this is a very difficult process if the source of lead is contaminated water in the home or in the school.

However, everyone who has lead in the blood needs this step, whether other medical management is needed or not. When lead levels are low or moderately elevated, or when chelation therapy is not recommended for any other reason, the most important part of treatment is based on avoidance of the source of lead.

This can include drinking bottled water if the water is contaminated. It may involve eliminating lead-based paint from the home, which can be an exhaustive and costly process. And it may involve taking steps to protect yourself from chemical exposure at your workplace.

A Word From Verywell

Lead toxicity is a problem that has been around for a very long time, but has received more attention in recent years. Lead toxicity occurs worldwide, and there are numerous documented incidents in which thousands of people in a local region may be severely affected by lead contamination in the environment.

If you or your child has been diagnosed with lead toxicity, or if you have the signs of lead toxicity, rest assured that there are resources in your doctor's office and in your community that are there to provide you with a timely diagnoses and efficient treatment.

You should also make every effort to inform your local officials of the contamination so that the available public resources can be directed to decrease the lead level in your community.

Sources:

Mehta V, Midha V, Mahajan R, et al Lead intoxication due to ayurvedic medications as a cause of abdominal pain in adults. Clin Toxicol (Phila). 2017 Feb;55(2):97-101.

Thurtle N, Greig J, Cooney L, et al, Description of 3,180 courses of chelation with dimercaptosuccinic acid in children ≤ 5 y with severe lead poisoning in Zamfara, Northern Nigeria: a retrospective analysis of programme data. PLoS Med. 2014 Oct 7.

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