Do you remember the ordeal in Flint, Michigan? The city decided to change its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save money. Furthermore, the city was not treating the water properly with an anti-corrosive agent so not only was the iron from the main water pipes leaching into the water supply, it was also pulling water from the residents’ pipes as it flowed into their houses. As a result, the community members were being exposed to levels of lead. The children here started suffering from lead exposure and lead poisoning. Their blood lead levels were sometimes double or triple what their records showed their previous toddler blood lead levels to be. This event reignited the national conversation about lead poisoning and environmental health.
Flint is not isolated in their lead level problems. In April, 2018, news broke about elevated lead levels in the Chicago water supply. Even though many of us think of lead exposure as an “old fashioned” problem affecting our parents or even our grandparents, recent studies have shown that this is not the case. Lead and metal exposure should still be part of our discussion when it comes to health and safety today.
Lead is a metal that is a natural part of our earth. It is used in many manufactured items such as paint, pipes, toys, glassware, and even gasoline around the world. The problem with this element is that it can accumulate in the body and cause dangerous changes in our health. This is why some lead containing products, such as paint and gasoline, are banned in the United States. However, there is still possibility of lead exposure to products made before regulation was put into place or from objects that are imported into our country.
There is no safe blood level of lead. According to the CDC “at least 4 million households have children living in them that are being exposed to high levels of lead.” Lead exposure can have negative effects on almost all body systems. The WHO states that lead can be “distributed to the brain, liver, kidney and bones.” Lead also decreased vitamin D levels in our body. The biggest risk is to the brain and nervous system. It can accumulate in stores found in the teeth and bones. This means that small exposures over time can have a compounding effect. These affects are particularly dangerous for children because they are still developing and their digestive tract can absorb over 50% of the lead they are exposed to (as opposed to 15% in adults).
In children, lead poisoning can cause brain damage, slowed development, learning and behavior problems as well as hearing and speech problems. These symptoms can contribute to decreased attention span and lower IQ scores. As a result, these children may struggle in school and may be prevented from reaching their full potential as adults.
There are some treatments available for patients who have elevated lead levels. If someone is acutely affected by the ingestion of a large amount of lead over a short time, a gastric lavage (stomach pump) can be used to remove lead containing material. For chronic treatment, chelation therapy can be used. These molecules bind to lead in the body to prevent its absorption. However, there is little information about the treatment available to manage the developmental and behavioral affects of lead poisoning. There is also very little information available about how beneficial those types of treatments may be.
In fact, lead exposure is so important that it is an objective of the Healthy People 2020 campaign. There is education on their website as well as detailed plans to mobilize and implement changes. There is also a National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week every year. (This past year it was October 22-28). The goal of this event is to raise awareness as lead exposure as a preventable issue and to encourage the implementation of programs and outreach in the community.