Lead poisoning occurs when a person swallows or inhales lead in any form. The result can be damage to the brain, nerves, and many other parts of the body. Acute lead poisoning, which is relatively rare, occurs when a large amount of lead is taken into the body over a short period of time. Chronic lead poisoning, which is a common problem in children, occurs when small amounts of lead are taken in over a longer period.Description
Lead can damage almost every system in the human body, and it can also cause high blood pressure (hypertension). It is particularly harmful to the developing brain of fetuses and young children. The higher the level of lead in a child's blood, and the longer this elevated level lasts, the greater the chance of ill effects. Over the long term, lead poisoning in a child can lead to learning disabilities, behavior problems, and even mental retardation. At very high levels, lead poisoning can cause seizures, coma, and even death.
About one out of every six children in the United States has a high level of lead in the blood, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Many of these children are exposed to lead through peeling paint in older homes. Others are exposed through dust or soil that has been contaminated by old paint or past emissions of leaded gasoline. Since children between the ages of 12-36 months are apt to put things in their mouths, they are more likely than older children to take in lead. Pregnant women who come into contact with lead can pass it along to the fetus.
Over 80% of American homes built before 1978 have lead-based paint in them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The older the home, the more likely it is to contain lead paint, and the higher the concentration of lead in the paint is apt to be. Some homes also have lead in the water pipes or plumbing. People may have lead in the paint, dust, or soil around their homes or in their drinking water without knowing it, since lead can't be seen, smelled, or tasted. Because lead doesn't break down naturally, it can continue to cause problems until it is removed.Causes & symptoms
Before scientists knew how harmful it could be, lead was widely used in paint, gasoline, water pipes, and many other products. Today house paint is almost lead-free, gasoline is unleaded, and household plumbing is no longer made with lead materials. Still, remnants of the old hazards remain. Following are some sources of lead exposure:
New evidence suggests that lead may be harmful to children even at low levels that were once thought to be safe, and the risk of damage rises as blood levels of lead increase. The symptoms of chronic lead poisoning take time to develop, however. Children can appear healthy despite having high levels of lead in their blood. Over time, though, problems such as the following may arise:
Lead poisoning is also harmful to adults, in whom it can cause high blood pressure, digestive problems, nerve disorders, memory loss, and muscle and joint pain. In addition, it can lead to difficulties during pregnancy, as well as cause reproductive problems in both men and women.Acute lead poisoning
Acute lead poisoning, while less common, shows up more quickly and can be fatal. Symptoms such as the following may occur:
A high level of lead in the blood can be detected with a simple blood test. In fact, testing is the only way to know for sure if children without symptoms have been exposed to lead, since they can appear healthy even as long-term damage occurs. The CDC recommends testing all children at 12 months of age and, if possible, again at 24 months. Testing should start at six months for children at risk for lead poisoning. Based on these test results and a child's risk factors, the doctor will then decide whether further testing is needed and how often. In some states, more frequent testing is required by law.Children at risk
Children with an increased risk of lead poisoning include those who:
Testing is also important for adults whose job or hobby puts them at risk for lead poisoning. This includes people who take part in the following activities:
The first step in treating lead poisoning is to avoid further contact with lead. For adults, this usually means making changes at work or in hobbies. For children, it means finding and removing sources of lead in the home. In most states, the public health department can help assess the home and identify lead sources.
If the problem is lead paint, a professional with special training should remove it. This is not a do-it-yourself project. Scraping or sanding lead paint creates large amounts of dust that can poison people in the home. This dust can stay around long after the work is completed. In addition, heating lead paint can release lead into the air. For these reasons, lead paint should only be removed by someone who knows how to do the job safely and has the equipment to clean up thoroughly. Occupants, especially children and pregnant women, should leave the home until the cleanup is finished.Chelation therapy
If blood levels of lead are high enough, the doctor may also prescribe chelation therapy. This refers to treatment with chemicals that bind to the lead and help the body pass it in urine at a faster rate. There are four chemical agents that may be used for this purpose, either alone or in combination. Edetate calcium disodium (EDTA calcium) and dimercaprol (BAL) are given through an intravenous line or in shots, while succimer (Chemet) and penicillamine (Cuprimine, Depen) are taken by mouth. (Although many doctors prescribe penicillamine for lead poisoning, this use of the drug has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.)Alternative treatment
Changes in diet are no substitute for medical treatment. However, getting enough calcium, zinc, and protein may help reduce the amount of lead the body absorbs. Iron is also important, since people who are deficient in this nutrient absorb more lead. Garlic and thiamine, a B-complex vitamin, have been used to treat lead poisoning in animals. However, their usefulness in humans for this purpose has not been proved. Nutritional, botanical, and homeopathic medicines can be administered once the source is removed, to help correct any imbalances brought on by lead toxicity.Prognosis
If acute lead poisoning reaches the stage of seizures and coma, there is a high risk of death. Even if the person survives, there is a good chance of permanent brain damage. The long-term effects of lower levels of lead can also be permanent and severe. However, if chronic lead poisoning is caught early, these negative effects can be limited by reducing future exposure to lead and getting proper medical treatment.Prevention
Many cases of lead poisoning can be prevented. These steps can help:
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