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Lead Poisoning: Causes and Prevention

By: Kevin Watson MSc - Updated: 19 Mar 2012 | comments*Discuss
 
Lead Poisoning Blood Bones Chelation

Although the extent of lead poisoning in the UK has decreased, it still occurs. According to an article in the Journal of Environmental Health Research, doctors regularly find symptoms of lead poisoning in their patients. Fortunately, though, lead poisoning fatalities are now uncommon.

Prevalence

Lead is a natural product, a soft metal that forms part of the earth's crust. Humans have mined it for many centuries, and have used lead for water pipes and roofing. Until the recent past, lead was also a constituent of petrol and paint in the UK. Despite the effects on health, the world uses around 15 billion pounds of lead each year. In developed countries, it appears in art supplies, costume jewellery, leaded crystal, candles and pottery glazes. It's also available for fishing weights, lead shot and stained glass.

Consequently, the people most likely to have exposure to high levels of lead are those who work with such items. Builders and painters who renovate and decorate old buildings are also vulnerable. They may come into contact with lead piping, lead sheeting and the lead previously used in paint. Lead also enters the atmosphere through industrial processes. Among these are smelting, mining, burning waste, and recycling.

Symptoms

The difficulty with lead poisoning is that the symptoms may not appear for years. During this time, lead builds up in the blood. When these levels reach a critical point, the victim's health may be seriously impaired. Furthermore, it's not always obvious that lead poisoning is responsible for the symptoms. Doctors need to conduct tests.

Common symptoms of lead poisoning are headaches, abdominal pains and mood disorders. Sufferers may also display memory loss and a general failing of their mental abilities. Pain, tingling or numbness in the body's extremities may accompany these symptoms. Muscles may feel weak, and blood pressure may rise. Lead poisoning may also reduce or deform a man's sperm, and cause premature birth or miscarriage in pregnant women.

At its worst, lead can irreversibly damage the nervous system and the kidneys. Unconsciousness, seizures and death may follow.

Testing

A blood test can establish if someone has lead poisoning. A doctor measures the level of lead in the blood in terms of micrograms per decilitre (mcg/dl). 10 mcg/dl is a hazardous level.

Treatment

The first stage of treatment for lead poisoning is to remove the cause. If this isn't possible, whoever is responsible for the lead should find a way of reducing the risks it poses. Such action may be sufficient to deal with mild lead poisoning. For more serious cases, a doctor may prescribe chelation therapy. With chelation therapy, patients take a medicine that sticks to the lead. The medicine then helps the body excrete the lead with urine. Doctors can give the therapy orally or intravenously.

If a sufferer has a lead level of 45 mcg/dl or greater, a doctor may resort to a chemical called ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA). A patient may have to have more than one dose of EDTA therapy. Even then, the therapy may not be able to reverse the damage the lead poisoning has caused.

GPs often handle the effects of lead poisoning in patients. But for specialist advice, a patient is likely to see a clinical toxicologist.

It's worth noting, however, that although doctors may be able to reduce the levels of lead in the blood through prevention measures and therapy, lead will remain in the body. This is because bones absorb lead. In fact, around 95% of lead in an adult is in the skeleton. This figure is around 70% for children. A patient has to wait ten years or more before the lead in his or her bones drops by half.

Prevention

Prevention of lead poisoning in the first instance is vital. It's all too easy to ingest or breathe in lead particles. Washing hands and maintaining good hygiene practices are therefore essential. To reduce the risk of inhaling lead, it may be necessary to keep a work environment dust-free and to wear face masks, depending on the circumstances.

Workers should never sand lead paint or try to burn it off. Both methods of removal result in lead particles entering the air. Again, a lot depends on the situation, but it may be best to seal or cover old lead paint. Protective clothing helps stop workers taking lead particles away from a work area. In some instances, workers may need to shower and wash their hair on site before heading home. This helps restrict any lead to a specific area.

From this it follows that workers should never drink or eat where there may be lead particles.

If a worker believes there may be lead in the environment, he or she should waste no time informing management and a health and safety rep. An employer can then put appropriate safeguards in place.

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