Lead is classified as a “heavy metal,” and is highly toxic to the human body. Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, usually over months or years but even small amounts can create serious health concerns. Lead poisoning most commonly affects young children and infants and can lead to mental or physical impairment. In high doses, lead poisoning can be fatal.
Lead can enter the body by inhaling it in the form of dust particles in the air, or by ingestion of substances or liquids which are contaminated with lead, such as water or food. Lead is highly dangerous and may accumulate in bone marrow and nerve tissue.
For many years lead was used in a manufacturing of a wide variety of products including gasoline, solder, plumbing pipes, and most notoriously, household products such as house paint. After the toxicity of lead was finally recognized, in 1978, the sale of lead-based paint for homes was banned and the amount of lead permitted in gasoline was reduced.
Even though lead is no longer used in the manufacturing of products such as paint or water pipes, many products that had been manufactured before the ban went into effect still exist in older homes and buildings and still pose the threat of lead exposure. Older homes and apartment buildings are key sources of lead exposure, as many still contain lead-based paint on the walls and lead plumbing pipes.
Previously existing lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust, usually from paint, remain the most common sources of lead poisoning in children today. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 24 million homes in the United States still have lead-based paint inside of them.
Effects of Lead Poisoning
Children are much more at risk and likely to suffer from lead poisoning. They are more likely to ingest products or items that may be contaminated, such as lead-based paint chips and are more sensitive to lead poisoning due to developing brain, nerve tissue and other body systems. Children under the age of 6 years are at highest risk for consequences of lead poisoning.
Some reports estimate that approximately 400,000 children in the United States may be affected by lead poisoning at any one time. Lead poisoning can have serious negative effects on children as their bodies still developing. Lead accumulation in the central nervous system, can lead to severe developmental problems with both cognitive and behavioral disability.
In addition to developmental difficulties, children with high levels of lead in their bodies may suffer from a wide variety of ailments. Lead-exposed children may experience:
- Kidney damage
- Brain damage
- Decreased muscle and bone growth
- Learning disabilities
- Speech problems
- Impaired hearing
- Nervous system damage
Many of the harmful consequences of lead poisoning are not reversible even with treatment. In severe cases, lead poisoning may possibly result in death.
Diagnosing Lead Poisoning
In many cases, lead poisoning is not noted until a blood test is performed to “rule out” lead poisoning for a number of children or due to suspected contamination events such as those which have occurred in municipal or public water supply scandals.
Lead poisoning is challenging to diagnose, as acute symptoms of lead poisoning may be confused with other ailments. In long-term exposure, lead poisoning may be dismissed as another type of developmental or behavioral issue.
Acute symptoms of lead poisoning are not common but may include:
- Appetite loss
- Weight loss
- Stomach pain
The most effective way to see if a child has elevated levels of lead in their body is through a blood test. Young children who live in residences that were built before the 1978 lead paint ban or whose water supply travels through old plumbing pipes which are made out of lead are at higher risk of exposure to lead and should be tested for lead poisoning.
Due to notable scandals and public contamination events, some pediatricians or social service organizations are routinely recommending blood testing for lead poisoning for children of certain ages.
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