Get The Lead Out

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One of the most common metal poisonings is lead poisoning, also known as lead toxicity.

Children are more sensitive to lead exposure than adults, especially children under five years of age. Young children spend more time crawling on the floor where there may be dust contaminated with lead and they tend to put objects in their mouth. Lead may be absorbed via the digestive tract, respiratory tract, and the skin. Lead may be found in the air, water, dust, soil, food, and consumer products. In the U.S., lead has been removed from paint and gasoline, however, some aviation gasolines may still contain lead. If you live in a house or apartment built before 1960, the paint in your house may contain lead. As this paint ages and flakes off, it falls to the floor as dust.

Descriptions of lead poisoning date as far back as 2000 B.C. The brain and nervous system are most susceptible to lead. Fetuses and young children are more sensitive to lead because their brains and nervous systems are still developing. Most children with high lead levels are asymptomatic, however lead poisoning can lead to decreased IQ, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, hearing problems, and impaired growth. Rarely, more serious neurological symptoms like seizures and coma may occur. In pregnancy, lead can affect the development of several fetal organ systems.

The poor are at greater risk for lead toxicity, as are those in developing countries. In 2016, 540,000 lead-related deaths were reported worldwide, mostly in developing countries.

Mass lead poisoning events have occurred, most recently in China and Nigeria. In both of those cases, hundreds of children were killed when they were exposed to fumes and exhaust from a local factory. A few years ago, there was a recall of toys that were made in China because the paint on them contained high levels of lead. Despite it being removed from gasoline and paint, lead is still used in many other products including glass, lead-acid batteries, radiation shields, ammunition, circuit boards, fetal monitors, ceramic glazes, cosmetics, and jet engines. Workers in industries that produce these products must take precautions to prevent their exposure. These precautions are overseen by the federal government via the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Workers must also ensure that they do not bring home lead particles on their clothing.

If lead toxicity is suspected, it can be confirmed by a simple blood test. In pediatrics, a finger prick test is available, although it is less accurate than a full blood test. Lead poisoning is very treatable, especially if caught early. The mainstay of treatment is chelation therapy.

Basically, this uses a medication to bind to lead molecules and carry them out of the body. Here in NYC, those who live in public housing are most at risk for lead poisoning, mostly from peeling and chipping paint. While this hazard has been known to the authorities since the 1970s, it continues to pose a problem. Media stories abound about mismanagement at NYCHA which explains why the problem still exists over 40 years after it first became known.

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