Lead poisoning (also known as plumbism) is a type of metal poisoning. It occurs due to the accumulation of this toxic metal over time.
Lead interferes with a variety of biological processes and is toxic to many organs. These organs include the heart, bones, intestines, kidney, reproductive, and nervous systems. It is especially important to note it interferes with the development of the nervous system and is therefore very harmful to children. It can potentially cause permanent learning and behavioral disorders.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Today at least 4 million households have children living in them that are being exposed to high levels of lead. There are approximately half a million U.S. children ages 1-5 with blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), the reference level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.” According to estimates made by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), more than 3 million workers in the United States are potentially exposed to lead in the workplace.
The prevalence of lead toxicity has decreased in the United States since the 1970s because of preschool screening programs, increased public awareness, and the removal of lead from gasoline and paint products. However, in less developed countries around the world, they continue to use lead in paint, cosmetics, and gasoline. According to the World Health Organization, lead poisoning accounts for about 0.6% of the global burden of disease.
Lead was also once a key ingredient in paint and gasoline and is still used in batteries, solder, pipes, pottery, roofing materials and some cosmetics. The use of lead-based paints for homes, children’s toys and household furniture has been banned in the United States since 1978. Lead-based paint has not been eliminated. It is still found on the walls and woodwork in many older homes and buildings. Common lead poisoning occurs in children as a result from eating lead-based paint chips. Other causes include ingestion, inhalation, exposure to paint, air, water, soil, food, and manufactured goods contaminated with lead.
Symptoms are nonspecific. They include abdominal pain, confusion, headache, anemia, and irritability. In severe cases, seizures, coma, and death.
If you suspect lead poisoning, call
Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222,
they are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Evaluation and treatment are essential. A thorough history and physical examination is necessary. The physical examination should include special attention to these systems: neurological, hematological, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and renal. If you observe a purplish line on the gums (lead line), this is usually indicative of a severe and prolonged lead poisoning.
The main tool in diagnosing and assessing the severity of lead poisoning is laboratory analysis of the blood lead level (BLL). Neuroimaging, such as CT and MRI, plays a marginal role in the diagnosis of lead poisoning. Cerebral edema and micro-hemorrhages have been noted in patients presenting with encephalopathy. Also, chronic exposure to lead has demonstrated patchy calcifications on CT scans in adults. An EEG or electroencephalogram may be performed if there is mental decline or seizures are suspected. EMG/NCV may also be utilized to assess for neuropathy.
In most cases, lead poisoning is preventable by avoiding exposure to lead. The ways to reduce the blood lead levels of children include increasing their frequency of hand washing, increase intake of calcium and iron, avoid eating paint chips, and clean frequently. Lead testing kits are commercially available for detecting the presence of lead in the house.
Chelation therapy is the treatment of choice for the removal of lead from the human body. Chelation therapy is a medical procedure that involves the administration of chelating agents to remove heavy metals from the body. EDTA is a chelating agent. It binds to a heavy metal and isolates it. This agent is a molecule with a negative charge which allows it to form complexes with metal ions with multiple positive charges. In this case, lead. The resultant molecule or chelate formed is nontoxic and can be excreted by the body.
As always, early diagnosis is important for the best outcome. If you suspect lead poisoning, call Poison Control immediately and consult your doctor or go to the nearest emergency room for treatment.
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