Should We Be Locking Up Lead?

Should We Be Locking Up Lead?

Most people are aware that the heavy metal lead can build up in the human body and cause serious health problems. These cumulative exposures are most debilitating among infants and children under the age of six who – by virtue of their smaller size and rate of growth – absorb more of the substance and are as a result more likely to develop severe mental and physical deficits.

The sources of lead are fewer this century than at any other time in history. Gone are the lead-based paints of the 1900s. The same is not true for brownfields or contaminated locations where ammunition, glass and ceramics, and other lead-based products, are manufactured. In fact, lead contamination remains in the soil, and as a result is also in the water and the air.

Other significant exposures include the manufacture of batteries, among those who remodel older homes, and those who work in auto repair shops. Fortunately, all these workers are adults, at least in developed nations. In developing nations, it’s quite common to see children foraging through a dump site in order to find valuable, first-world discards like batteries.

Labeled “painter’s colic,” a phrase coined about 1834, lead poisoning has some very specific symptoms, including abdominal pain, anemia, confusion, headache, and irritability. If severe or left untreated, lead poisoning can result in coma, seizures and ultimately death. Children experience more Central Nervous System (CNS) difficulties like delayed reaction times, difficulty concentrating, and headaches.

Nor is detection particularly difficult. Doctors can rely on a blood test which tells them how much lead is moving throughout the body. A urine test can do the same. Unfortunately, neither test determines how much lead is being stored in organs like the heart, kidneys, reproductive system, bones, intestines and the nervous system.

Blood levels also differ between adults and children. While the Centers for Disease Control has set a standard of up to 25 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dl) in the adult bloodstream, the upper limit for children – 5 µg/dl, effective 2012 – is half of what it was in 2011. Even then, some clinicians question whether 5 is a small enough exposure to prevent some of the more catastrophic learning and physical disabilities.

There is a cure for lead poisoning. First, of course, the source (lead-based paint in about 93 percent of cases) must be removed. Then the area in question has to be cleaned in much the same fashion as an asbestos hazard site, using a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filtered vacuum that will not be used in the household again.

Once the lead has been cleaned up, affected individuals can take chelation therapy. This involves injections of ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid (EDTA), a substance whose molecules have a particular affinity for lead, binding it and allowing it to be excreted by the kidneys.

EDTA chelation therapy has been the gold standard for treating lead poisoning since about 1973, or four years before lead-based paint was discontinued by order of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA.

Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, EDTA can also remove heavy metals like cadmium, mercury and zinc, but it is not recommended for children, pregnant women, or individuals with heart or kidney failure as it has been known to precipitate some very serious consequences, notably high blood pressure, headaches, rash, low blood sugar, and/or thrombophlebitis (blood clots).

Chelation therapy typically means 20 injections or drinkable mixtures over 10 to 12 weeks on an outpatient basis. And, in spite of the fact that EDTA is a harsh regimen, suitable only to mature, healthy adults, its ability to remove the heavy metals that accumulate in the human body has a peripheral side effect; it is said to lessen the pain for those who have arthritis, lupus and scleroderma.

Interestingly enough, lead poisoning – often seen as the culprit in learning disabilities – has also been cited as the cause of crime and violence in post-WWII society. Author Kevin Drum, writing in Mother Jones, points to two remarkable similarities between the phasing out of lead (1960s) and the phasing out of leaded gasoline (1980s) when compared with rising crime rates in the 20th century.

To further prove his theory, Drum insists that the increase in IQs during the past 10 to 12 years is the direct result of reduced exposure to lead paint. The correlation – lead poisoning leads to lower intelligence, which leads to crime – is interesting but perhaps oversimplified, especially when viewed from a recent Stanford University study that shows human intelligence starting to decline beginning more than a hundred years ago. In fact, say researchers, a time-traveling Renaissance man might find modern-day humans dull indeed.


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