Lead: the metal enemy.
When I first learned that this is National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, I was determined to ignore it. Because lead terrifies me. And the primitive monkey part of my brain runs from scary things and then hides under a bush. We live in an ancient house with crumbling windowsills, and every time my son looks pale or refuses dinner, I think it’s the lead, oh god, the lead, he’ll never get past first grade. He’s overdue for a lead test and I’ve been putting it off because getting blood out of my son is right up there with the Most Harrowing Experiences You’ll Ever Experience.
After a few minutes of igoring and hiding, though, the slightly more advanced part of my brain, the chimp part, realized that ignoring something does not make it go away. I also realized that I don’t know too much about lead, except that it’s Bad, and Bad things are not Good. So I decided to stare lead in its stupid lead face and get some facts. And now I shall share them with you.
What is lead? What does lead do?
Lead is a highly toxic metal. When you ingest or inhale lead, it is quickly absorbed and distributed throughout the body to the blood, soft tissue (including the brain and nervous system), and bones. Once it’s entered the body, lead mimics the actions of calcium, and thus isn’t recognized as an intruder. Soon it’s got an all-access pass to the body. Lead and calcium ions work against each other, fighting for the same channels. Once lead has entered the channels meant for calcium, it can literally hijack those cells, commanding the uptake of more lead.
I tried to find a succinct, layperson-terms explanation of what lead does to the body, but it turns out that lead is so cataclysmic to so many systems that it defies concision. It is anti-pithy, the damage that lead does. It involves big words mingling with other big words until one’s eyes fall out. I’m going to give you one example of how lead affects the brain. It took me about four hours to read three studies on this and then get my eyes to screw back into my head.
Calcium ions are crucial to the functioning of the nervous system: they regulate neurotransmitters. This regulation affects the activity in the developing brain. The young brain has more synapses than an adult’s, and develops according to the stimuli it receives; normal development literally shapes the brain, pruning certain synapses that aren’t needed. When lead comes in, it increases neural activity. As a result, this shaping of the brain is affected, sometimes profoundly, causing behavioral disorders and learning disabilities.
Calcium, of course, isn’t just used in the brain. It’s also essential to bone strength, the production of blood cells, and muscle contraction. Once lead gets in on these functions, it can wreak havoc all over the place.
Who is most affected by lead poisoning?
High levels of lead can sicken and kill people of all ages, but the effects of low to moderate lead levels are most dangerous to children. Because lead so profoundly affects development, fetuses and children under the age of six are at greatest risk.
How common is lead poisoning?
More than 4% of children in the United States suffer from the effects of lead, making it the number one environmental illness of our children. It affects children with families from any income level–although poor, urban, non-white children are more at risk.
Symptoms of lead poisoning can vary from irritability and headaches to vomiting and seizures. It’s important to note, however, that many children with lead poisoning show no signs of being sick.
Where is all this lead?
Usually children are affected by lead paint in homes. Before the late ’70s, lead was used in household paints. If there’s any flaking or peeling paint, it can be ingested or inhaled (lead paint has a sweet taste, which needless to say makes it a likely snack for toddlers). Contamined soil from outside the home can be tracked indoors, where a crawling child would be exposed to it. Lead pipes inside the home can introduce lead into the water. And, as we all know, lead can sometimes be found in toys.
How much lead is too much?
Until recently common wisdom held that levels below 10 mcg/dL were acceptable, but that number is now being called into question. Evidence has shown that even trace amounts of lead can damage a child’s brain functioning. A study performed in 2003 found that levels below 10 mcl/dL caused declines in IQ that were greater than the damage inflicted by larger concentrations of lead.
What can I do?
Short of putting your child in a bubble (which is what I’m looking into), here are a few steps you can take:
If you live in an older building, let your water run from the faucet for at elast a minute before drinking it. (Or drink bottled water.) And never use hot water for drinking or cooking: hot water leaches more lead than cold.
Reduce the level of dust in your home. Keep surfaces clean and make sure your children’s hands and faces are washed frequently, especially before meals.
Make sure your children are getting plenty of iron and calcium in their diets. That can help fight off the absorption of lead.
Have the paint in your home tested by a certified lead paint inspector. (At-home tests are not particularly reliable.)
Finally, have your children tested for lead. That’s what I’m going to do. I swear. Anyone available to help me hold down a surprisingly strong five-year-old?