Health In Focus With Dr Zulfikar Bux
The World Health Organization estimates that there are 143,000 deaths yearly from lead poisoning. Lead exposure contributes to 600,000 new cases of children with intellectual disabilities every year and 99 percent of children affected by high exposure to lead live in low- and middle-income countries. It may be lurking in our homes here in Guyana and we need to look out for the subtle signs before it’s too late.
WHAT IS LEAD POISONING?
Lead poisoning is a serious medical problem that mostly affects children. It happens when too much lead gets into a person’s body. It can damage the brain, kidneys, and other organs. In children, lead poisoning can cause learning and memory problems that can never be fixed.
Lead is a metal, so people think of it as something that you find only in pipes or other metal objects. The truth is, lead can be found in all kinds of things, including dust, wall paint, old toys, pottery, soil, and even drinking water.
HOW CAN A PERSON GET LEAD POISONING?
That depends on whether the person is a child or an adult.
A child can get lead poisoning in a few different ways:
The child can swallow or inhale lead in dust. House paint used to be made with lead in it. Many old houses still have that paint. As the paint slowly chips or peels, lead can get into dust.
The child can swallow lead in water or food. The pipes in some homes have lead in them, so lead can get into water that way. Foods can get lead in them if they are stored in certain types of cans or if they have certain spices.
The child can chew or suck on toys, jewelry, or other products that have lead in them. This does not happen often.
In adults, lead poisoning is less common than it is in children. That’s because the body develops a natural way to protect itself from lead as it gets older. Even so, adults can get lead poisoning if they have a job or a hobby that involves using materials that have lead. For example, adults can get lead poisoning if they:
Work with lead paint (painting bridges or boats, for example)
Are exposed to lead fumes (because they work in battery recycling or in a plant that processes lead, for example)
Make ceramics or stained glass
Remodel their home and there is lead in the paint that was used when the home was built
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF LEAD POISONING?
Most young children with lead poisoning have no symptoms. That is why it’s so important to screen children at risk for lead poisoning (such as those living in houses built for more than 30 years). When symptoms occur, they vary depending on how much lead a person is exposed to.
In general, a child with symptoms might: Feel tired, Have a stomach ache, Feel constipated, Feel irritable, Vomit, Have developmental delay, Have learning difficulties, Have loss of appetite, Have weight loss, Have hearing loss, Have Seizures.
Adults can have the following symptoms: High blood pressure, Joint and muscle pain, Difficulties with memory or concentration, Headache, Abdominal pain, Mood disorders, Reduced sperm count and abnormal sperm
Miscarriage, stillbirth or premature birth in pregnant women.
IS THERE A TEST FOR LEAD POISONING?
Yes. There are blood tests that measure the amount of lead in a person’s body. You should ask your child’s doctor if your child needs to be screened for lead poisoning.
HOW IS LEAD POISONING TREATED?
The most important “treatment” for lead poisoning is to get rid of the source of the lead. For example, if a child got lead poisoning from paint dust in his or her home, then a professional should remove all the lead paint (called “lead abatement”) from the child’s home. The only way to fully protect a child is to remove the source of lead from his or her surroundings.
For people with very high levels of lead, doctors sometimes suggest a treatment called “chelation” therapy. This involves taking a medicine that helps pull lead out of the body. The medicine can be given through a thin tube that goes into a vein called an “IV,” in pills, or in a shot. But doctors can give this medicine only if they are sure that the person is no longer being exposed to lead. If the person is still being exposed to lead, the medicine can actually make lead poisoning worse. Plus, chelation does not prevent or undo the long-term effects of lead on learning and intelligence.
CAN LEAD POISONING BE PREVENTED?
Yes. The most important thing you can do to prevent lead poisoning is to avoid exposure to lead in paint or household materials that may have lead in them. You should avoid toys that may have lead in them. Another way to prevent or reduce the effects of lead poisoning is to eat a diet rich in calcium, vitamin D, vitamin C, and iron. Good food choices include milk, yogurt, fortified cereals, fish, lean meats, oranges, and tomatoes. Plus, children should get a multivitamin with iron every day.
You should research online for household items and toys that may have lead. Preventing lead exposure beats looking for the subtle and often missed symptoms of lead poisoning.