Lead Poisoning: Overview and More

Lead poisoning is a build-up of lead in the body that usually develops over months or years. Although lead poisoning is common in developing countries and causes more than 500,000 deaths a year, it can also affect American homes (as demonstrated by the 2016 crisis in Flint, Michigan, which exposed more than 100,000 people to water contaminated with lead).

Lead is a naturally occurring metal that is not beneficial to the body.

Exposure to toxins can affect the brain and other vital organs, causing neurological and behavioral changes, gastrointestinal diseases, kidney failure , and delayed development. At a very high level, this can be fatal.

Lead poisoning can be diagnosed with blood tests and imaging tests. If the lead level is high, treatment may include the use of chelating medications that bind to lead and remove it from the body.

Get Medical Information / Emily Roberts

Lead Poisoning Symptoms

Although lead poisoning can damage almost every organ in the body, the first signs of the disease usually appear in the brain and gastrointestinal tract.

The symptoms of lead poisoning are often subtle and difficult to detect. Some people may not have symptoms. The most common include:

  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Loss of concentration
  • Short-term memory deficiency
  • Dizziness and loss of coordination.
  • Unusual taste in the mouth
  • The blue line along the gum (known as the Burton line).
  • Tingling or numbness (neuropathy)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Decreased appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Speak slurred

Unlike adults, children can show dramatic changes in behavior (including hyperactivity, apathy, and aggressiveness) and often lag behind other children of the same age. Sometimes irreversible mental retardation can occur.

Complications of lead poisoning can include kidney damage, hypertension, hearing loss, cataracts, male infertility, miscarriage, and premature delivery.

If lead levels rise above 100 mcg / dl, inflammation of the brain (encephalopathy) can occur, which can lead to seizures, coma, and even death.


Lead toxicity in the United States has been declining since the first paint and gasoline ban in 1978. Since then, other laws have been passed to reduce lead levels in plumbing, industrial solvents, and common household products. Despite this, lead poisoning still occurs in the United States.

Children are at particularly high risk, in part due to their low body weight and relative level of exposure. They also tend to absorb lead more easily into brain tissue and exhibit hand-to-mouth behavior that contributes to infection.

Other common causes of lead exposure include:

  • Water, mainly from old lead pipes and use of lead solder.
  • Soil contaminated with lead paint or gasoline
  • Occupational exposure in mines, foundries, or manufacturing plants where lead is present.
  • Imported ceramics and ceramic for tableware
  • Lead crystal used for decanted liquids or food storage.
  • Ayurvedic and traditional medicines, some of which contain lead for "medicinal" properties, while others are spoiled during the manufacturing process.
  • Imported toys, cosmetics, candy, and household items made in lead-free countries.

Lead poisoning can also occur during pregnancy, when temporary loss of bone leads to release into the system and exposes the fetus to high levels of toxicity.


Lead toxicity can be diagnosed using a variety of laboratory tests and imaging techniques. A basic test called a blood lead level (BLL) can tell us how much lead is in your blood.

Ideally, there should be no lead, but even low levels can be considered acceptable. Blood lead concentration is measured in micrograms (μg) per deciliter (dl) of blood. Current valid range:

While BLL can provide a clear indication of your current condition, it cannot tell us the cumulative effect that lead has had on your body. To do this, your doctor may prescribe non-invasive X-ray fluorescence (XRF), essentially a form of high-energy X-ray radiation that can assess the amount of lead in your bones and identify areas of calcification that indicate long-term exposure. . …

Other tests may include a blood smear to look for changes in red blood cells and erythrocyte protoporphyrin (EP), which can give us clues about the duration of exposure.

Watch out

This main form of treatment for lead poisoning is called chelation therapy . It involves the use of chelating agents that actively bind to lead and form a non-toxic compound that is easily excreted in the urine.

Chelation therapy is indicated for people with severe lead poisoning or signs of encephalopathy. This can be considered for anyone with a BLL greater than 45 mcg / dL. Chelation therapy is less important in chronic cases below this value.

The therapy can be administered orally or intravenously. The most commonly prescribed remedies include:

  • Ball in oil (dimercaprol)
  • Disodium calcium
  • Chemet (dimercaptosuccinic acid)
  • D-penicillamine
  • EDTA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid)

Side effects can include headaches, fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, and chest tightness. In rare cases, seizures, respiratory failure, kidney failure, or liver damage are known.

Get the word of drug information

Lead poisoning can be scary because you can't always tell if you or your child have been exposed. There are ways to test your home if you're concerned, including home test kits available at hardware stores for $ 10 to $ 30.

Better yet, if you live in an older home that hasn't been renovated, you can hire a risk assessor who is certified by the government or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In the meantime, to further reduce the risks to your family:

  • Make sure everyone washes their hands frequently.
  • Teach children not to put their hands or fingers in their mouths.
  • Give everyone a daily iron and calcium supplement.
  • Vacuum and mop frequently.
  • Do not allow children to play in the dirt around the house if the exterior paint is cracked or deteriorated.
  • Place a rug inside and outside the entrances to your home.
  • Encourage everyone to remove their shoes before entering.
  • If you work in a factory or plant where there is a risk of lead exposure, shower and change clothes before going home.
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