Lead has been in the news a lot lately. It’s been found in the drinking water of multiple communities. When lead is present and ingested, it has genuinely bad health effects — especially in children.
What’s the medical story behind the dangers of lead? Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree that there is no known safe level of lead in children’s blood.
Lead is found in air, soil, dust and water. Lead and its compounds have been used in products such as ceramics that may be used for dinnerware. Paint made before 1978 commonly contains lead. Paint chips or dust that contains bits of paint can contain lead. Solder, gasoline, batteries, ammunition and even cosmetics may also contain lead.
Lead gets into drinking water when water pipes that contain lead corrode. The lead leaches into the water. Lead can also leach into water from brass or chrome-plated brass faucets that use lead solder to seal them. Hot water increases the lead leaching. Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures and solder.
Babies and young children can be at greater risk for ingesting lead because they often put items that may have lead from dust, soil or old paint into their mouths.
Generally, lead exposure is more harmful for young children than it is for adults. In children, even low levels of lead exposure have been linked to damage to children’s brain and nervous systems. Lead can also negatively affect the formation and function of blood cells.
After exposure, lead is absorbed into the blood and is distributed throughout the body. It concentrates in the brain, liver, kidney and bone tissue.
The CDC notes that lead poisoning can cause childhood learning and behavior problems. Some effects of lead poisoning may never go away.
Lead poisoning in children can:
In rare cases, lead poisoning can cause seizures, coma and even death.
Lead exposure in adults is related to chronic health issues, including hypertension, muscle and joint aches, memory or concentration issues or mood changes.
Lead in the blood stream can also be deposited in the bone matrix — that’s the intercellular substance of bone tissue. Lead can move into the bone matrix and store there like calcium does. In fact, 90 percent of lead that you’re exposed to will accumulate in your bones.
Over time, diseases that can affect the density of bone matrix, such as thyroid disease or osteoporosis, can lead to more concentrated lead released into your blood stream.
Antiresorptive agents, or medications for osteoporosis, may be taken to keep lead in the bone rather that allowing it to leave the bone and return to the bloodstream — where it can be even more harmful.