The Effects of Lead Poisoning & Why You Should Care - Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare

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Published on March 14, 2016

The Effects of Lead Poisoning & Why You Should Care

Lead is a natural element that has been used in a wide variety of products found in and around our homes. It is also toxic to humans and animals.

In the 1970s, when it became known that lead can cause severe long-term health problems, government regulatory standards were enforced to phase out lead in paint, gasoline and plumbing materials. With these changes, many believed the risk of lead exposure as a major health concern was over, but as we are learning from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, lead poisoning is a problem that hasn't gone away.

How Lead Affects the Body

When lead is absorbed into the body, often through contaminated water or food, or when lead dust or fumes are inhaled, it damages vital organs, such as the kidneys, liver and the brain. It affects both adults and children, but is critically more damaging to children.

“Children absorb lead more easily than adults,” says Dr. Jeanine Kies, family and osteopathic medicine physician with Wheaton Franciscan Medical Group. “Excess amounts can interfere with development of the brain and nervous system. It can also interfere with the development of a fetus and increases a pregnant woman’s risk of miscarriage or stillbirth.”

Adults and children may experience similar symptoms after high levels of exposure, ranging from anemia to abdominal pain to seizures. Symptoms may include:

  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Excessive fatigue

“If lead exposure goes undetected for years,” says Dr. Kies, “it can cause developmental or neurological damage. Many affected children have behavioral issues, difficulty learning and emotional issues. And damage from lead is irreversible.”

How to Prevent Lead Exposure

There are some steps that can help keep the body from absorbing more lead and prevent lead levels from increasing. Eating a diet rich in iron, vitamin C and calcium is essential.

“A child's body requires calcium and iron," Dr. Kies says. "When these minerals are deficient in the body, lead absorption is increased. Children who are deficient in these minerals retain more of the lead than they would have otherwise.”

Preventing exposure to lead is the most important first step. If you suspect there is lead in your water or your household materials, contact your local health department.

“If you are worried that you, or your child, have been exposed, your doctor can do a screening blood test,” says Dr. Kies. “That can put your mind at ease or put you in contact with any resources you may need.”

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The Effects of Lead Poisoning & Why You Should Care