Among the heavy metals in the world, lead has one of the the earliest histories of use by humans. This bluish white metal (that becomes grayish dull when exposed to air) is heavily used in the construction of buildings, bullets, batteries, and weights, as well as a component in many fusible alloys. Its use dates back to at least 6400 BC, when metallic lead beads were found in Çatalhöyük, a large Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlement found in Anatolia, Turkey. It is also found in the Bible, in the Book of Exodus, chapter 15 verse 10.
The reason why lead is so commonly used is due to its high malleability and ductility. It is also very easy to melt, and the metal is relatively easy to extract. Lead is also remarkably durable; in fact, there are still lead pipes with Roman emperor insignias in service. Certain Roman monumental buildings also secured iron pins that hold together large limestone blocks using molten lead.
The Dark Side of Lead
In spite of the obvious usefulness of lead, it has a downside: its organic and inorganic compunds can be toxic. Lead poisoning is the result of increased levels of lead in the blood, eventually concentrating in the various organs of the body. The toxicity of lead was first recognized as early as 200 BC, and in 250 BC, Nicander of Colophon wrote about anemia and colic that were supposedly induced by lead. Also, gout, which was another condition that was prevalent in Rome then, was also attributed to lead. In 30 AD, Aulus Cornelius Celsus listed white lead as a poison, with mallow or walnut juice rubbed up in wine as the antidote. Even Julius Caesar’s engineer, Vitruvius, reported that water is much more wholesome and safe when coming from earthen rather than lead pipes.
In modern times, lead was used in paint pigments and this was the primary avenue of lead contamination to the human body. Children under the age of 12 are the usual victims of lead poisoning, since they tend to put things in their mouths. If these things are painted with lead-based paints, then they will get inordinately large amounts of it in their system. Children also tend to play around in houses with high levels of lead contamination, causing them to take in lead-contaminated dust. In 1978, the United States government banned the use of lead-based paints in housing. 1998 also saw the regulation of using lead in toys and other consumer products and in 2006, the Lead Poisoning Reduction Act was passed, which requires all non-home-based child care facilities to be safe from lead within the next five years.
Symptoms of Lead Poisoning
One of the main problems with lead poisoning is that it does not give a definite symptom right away. It is not like other forms of poisoning where a person ingests it, gets sick, and is then rushed to the hospital. Instead, lead poisoning is a slow dealer, accumulating silently until the first real symptoms are detected.
In children, where lead poisoning has a higher risk and effect, the symptoms are nonspecific but may include:
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- unusual pallor
- difficulties learning
Of particular note is the fact that lead poisoning contributes greatly to the decrease of a child’s mental development; a child’s rapidly developing brain is particularly vulnerable to lead toxicity. The ultimate neurological effects it has on children include:
- loss of IQ
- memory problems
- trouble with attention span
- poor fine-motor skills
- difficulty grasping abstract concepts
- language fluency or communication difficulties
- poor cognitive flexibility
The problem with lead poisoning in children is that you won’t know if your child has amassed enough lead in their body to significantly affect them until they hit 6 or 7. By that time, it could already be too late.
In adults, signs and symptoms may include:
- pain, numbness, or tingling in the extremities
- muscular weakness
- reduced sperm count
- memory loss
- mood swings
Getting Rid of Lead Poisoning
There is no immediate way to completely get rid of lead poisoning. Even if you completely remove the lead from your body, the damage it causes to your organs will not be undone. There is no medicine that you can take to cure it. However, there are still some steps you can take to reduce its effects:
- Try chelation therapy. Chelation therapy is used for more severe cases of lead poisoning. In it, a medicine (called the chelating agent) is taken, which then binds with the lead so that it’s excreted via the urine.
- Wash your hands frequently. If you’re working in the construction industry, chances are you might be handling stuff that contains lead. Use gloves and to make sure, wash your hands properly after work. That way, you won’t ingest any traces of lead in your hands.
- Use only cold water from the tap. Whenever you use water for drinking, washing, or cooking, use cold water from tap. Hot water is more likely to have higher levels of lead.
- Don’t use any products that have lead in them. Some paints, cosmetics, and utensils may contain lead, so steer clear off them. For paints and cosmetics, check the labels for ingredients as it might be listed there.
- Stop the exposure to lead. The best way to treat lead poisoning is to stop the exposure to it. Remove the source as quickly as you can. You may also try to get help from your local government if the source is something that you can’t remove by yourself.
Lead poisoning is rarely life-threatening, but it can have an immense effect on you for the rest of your life, especially for your children. The best cure is still prevention, so make sure that your home is lead-free and safe.