What Is Lead, And Why Should You Care About It?

October 25th, 2022

For decades, lead was a major byproduct of manufactures around the world. It was commonly found in household and workplace wall paints, children’s plastic toys, and even publicly supplied water. According to PBS, it wasn’t until 1979 that the medical community discovered the potential dangers of even the smallest exposure to lead.

In this blog, we hope to inform you about what lead is, how it affects people and businesses, and what you and your business can do to remediate or prevent its harmful effects.

What is lead?

Lead is a naturally occurring element that can be found in small amounts in the earth's crust. While it is not considered toxic in very small quantities, lead can be dangerous if it is inhaled or swallowed in larger amounts. Lead is commonly used in manufacturing and construction, as well as in some consumer products. Although lead exposure has declined significantly over the past few decades, it can still pose a health hazard, particularly for children.

Where does lead come from?

Lead is found in a variety of sources, both natural and manmade. Natural sources of lead include deposits in the earth's crust and minerals such as galena (lead sulfide) and cerussite (lead carbonate). Lead can also be released into the environment from human activities like mining, smelting, and burning fossil fuels, and can be found in a number of consumer products, such as paint, plumbing fixtures, and gasoline.

According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the Flint water crisis in 2015 served as a reminder that potentially harmful lead waste practices and continual community exposure is still a part of our lives today.

While lead exposures are less common today than they were 20 years ago, there is still an alarming number of recalls for household items, including children’s toys, clothing and electronics. The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission regularly posts recalls for lead exposure.

How does lead get into the body?

Lead can enter the body through inhalation (breathing in lead-containing dust or fumes), ingestion (swallowing lead-containing materials), or absorption through the skin. Once lead has entered the body, it is distributed throughout the bloodstream and stored in the bones and soft tissues. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning because their bodies absorb lead more easily than adults. Pregnant women can also pass lead to their developing babies through the placenta.

How much lead is toxic?

Just like any chemical, the greater the amount is introduced into a system, the greater affect it will have. There is no safe level of lead exposure for humans or animals, but the amount of lead that is considered toxic depends on a person's age and health. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a branch of the CDC, recent studies have lowered the previously deemed “safe” blood lead levels (BLL). The CDC recommends prevention strategies to keep BLL levels below 5 µg/dl. As researchers continue to monitor lead’s effect on public health, U.S. regulatory organizations will update standards such as acceptable BLL. Children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead, which can include damage to the brain and nervous system. In adults, lead exposure can cause high blood pressure, kidney damage, and fertility problems.

What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?

The symptoms of lead poisoning vary depending on the amount of lead in the body and how long someone has been exposed. In general, the symptoms of lead poisoning include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Memory loss
  • Nausea and vomiting

In more severe cases, lead poisoning can cause convulsions, coma, and even death.

How is lead poisoning diagnosed?

Lead poisoning is typically diagnosed through a blood test. The amount of lead in the blood can help doctors determine how much lead has been absorbed by the body and whether there are any health risks. In some cases, X-rays or MRIs may also be used to look for signs of damage to the brain or other organs.

How is lead poisoning treated?

The treatment for lead poisoning depends on the severity of the exposure. In most cases, medical intervention is not necessary, and the affected person will simply be monitored for any symptoms. If the exposure is more severe, chelation therapy may be used to remove lead from the bloodstream. This therapy can be given intravenously or orally, and it is typically reserved for children and pregnant women. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to remove lead-containing objects from the body.

How can lead poisoning be prevented?

The best way to prevent lead poisoning is to avoid exposure to lead sources. If you live in an old home or occupy an aging building for your business, have your water tested for lead and get rid of any lead pipes. Be careful during renovations, as disturbing paint or other materials can release lead into the air. If you work with lead, take precautions to avoid inhaling dust or fumes. And, if you think your child may have been exposed to lead, talk to your doctor and get them tested.

Lead poisoning is a serious health hazard, but it is preventable. By taking steps to avoid exposure and getting prompt treatment if exposed, you can help minimize the risks associated with lead poisoning. Contact us today to test your business for lead and other harmful elements and chemicals.