What is the first thing you think of when I mention the heavy metal lead? If you’re like most people, it’s lead-based paint, which was first used during the Renaissance period. It hit its peak for interior use in 1922, and its use in exterior paint dropped significantly in the 1950s and 1960s but was still in use until it was finally banned in 1978. Lead was added to paint because it made it more durable and easier to clean, and was repeatedly endorsed by the US, state and local governments.
Even though it is no longer allowable for use in paint, lead can still be found in many consumer products today, such as (and this is by no means a complete list):
- Glazed ceramics or leaded crystal
- Cigarette smoke
- Cosmetics, especially red lipstick
- Jewelry, especially antiques
- Industrial emissions
- Aviation fuel
- Auto exhaust
- Metal polish
- Antique painted toys and furniture and old playground equipment
- Toys, herbs, grains and supplements imported from foreign countries
- Homes built prior to 1978 may have lead paint and/or pipes
- New homes less than 5 years old (some plumbers still use lead solder to connect copper pipes)
- Private wells and even some city utilities
Health Risks of Lead
While many products have been re-engineered in recent years to eliminate lead, it is still a problem. Drainage from lead pipes and runoff from irrigation can contaminate groundwater, the ground around old playground equipment can be contaminated, and chipping or peeling paint on homes built prior to 1978 can also be a source of contamination. Add in the many items that are imported from foreign countries with less stringent standards, and the problem is compounded. Even though leaded gasoline is no longer used in this country, and lead-based paint has been banned, it is still a pervasive problem. Lead can persist in the environment for up to 100 years in soil, so you can expect that food and water will have some level of toxicity.
Children under the age of six are at the greatest risk from small amounts of lead because their bodies are still developing and the adverse health effects of this metal will be more noticeable in them. Lead exposure in children damages the brain and central nervous system, causing decreased intelligence, reading and learning difficulties, behavioral problems and hyperactivity. It may even cause loss of vision and/or hearing, antisocial behavior, violence and developmental delays and the damage can be permanent, affecting them throughout their lives.
In adults, pregnant women are especially at risk from exposure to lead. Once ingested, it is passed from mother to fetus and can cause miscarriage, premature birth, low birth weight or brain damage. Workers who routinely work with lead or lead-contaminated products may suffer high blood pressure, fertility problems in both men and women, digestive issues, nerve disorders, memory and concentration problems, physical fatigue, loss of sex drive and muscle or joint pain.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take all that much exposure to lead for it cause you problems. Have you ever touched a painted object that has been oxidized by the sun? It creates a powdery dust on the surface that then gets on your clothes or hands, right? If that paint contained lead, you would have been exposed. To give you another perspective, say you’re doing some home renovation or maintenance in a pre-1978 home. Imagine sprinkling a packet of artificial sweetener on the floor and tracking it all through your house. That small amount, even if swept up, vacuumed up or wet cleaned right away can be enough to make your family sick, especially small children.
Symptoms of Lead Poisoning
Lead poisoning doesn’t always have obvious symptoms, and when they are present, they are often misinterpreted or attributed to some other illness. Specific complaints can include a headache, stomachache, irritability, fatigue, loss of appetite and joint or muscle pain. These symptoms are similar to what you’d experience with the flu, so they can easily be mistaken or misdiagnosed.
Even if you don’t have any of the symptoms above, the lead could be creating chaos inside the body that affects your health and ability to function. Lead affects the blood by inhibiting enzymes, is absorbed into bones and displaces calcium, inhibits neurotransmitters in the brain, inhibits production of energy, impairs kidney function, causes a mineral imbalance of calcium, zinc, manganese, copper and iron and interferes with the function of the thyroid gland.
Identifying lead poisoning requires specific testing, typically of the blood or urine. In a blood test, lead is measured in micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dl). A microgram is one-millionth of a gram; a standard paper clip weighs about 1 gram or one million times more than a microgram! For a urine test, a chelating drug is given, then urine is collected for 24 hours, and the lead is measured. These two tests will detect chronic lead poisoning, but it may not be entirely accurate as it bioaccumulates deep in the bones and body tissues, meaning you may have a higher concentration of lead than what is shown on the blood tests. Lead doesn’t always show up in a hair mineral analysis until a nutritional balancing protocol has been implemented and the body starts to detox and release this heavy metal.
Lead-based paint remains the general public’s largest source of exposure, but it can still show up in other household goods that might surprise you (see the list above), such as lipstick, jewelry and metal polish. As with any toxic substance, minimizing exposure is critical.
No one will be able to avoid it completely, but being choosy about the products you use for personal care, making sure you know what kind of pipes and paint your home has, using filtered water for drinking, cooking and bathing are the easiest ones to start with. But be aware that even some new brass or chrome faucet filters, (including ones labeled “lead-free” thanks to a regulatory loophole) can bring lead into your home.
EWG recently published the results of analyzing over 30 million state water records. Out of almost 50,000 utilities studied, 40,000 tested positive for contaminants linked to cancer and 19,000 tested positive for lead at levels known to be harmful to children. To see if your local tap water has toxic chemicals, check EWG’s Tap Water Database.
If you have reason to believe you or someone you know have been exposed to lead, I encourage you to consult your primary physician and share your concerns with him or her so that proper testing can be done. Whether you have lead toxicity or not, a comprehensive Nutritional Balancing Program can help your body detox heavy metals, restore the appropriate mineral balance, and put you on the road to better health.