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Medical Definition of Poisoning, lead

Poisoning, lead: An environmental hazard capable of causing brain damage. In the US lead poisoning is formally defined as having at least 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. (The average level of lead, for people ages 1 to 70, is 2.3 micrograms.)

The lead may come, for example, from lead-containing paint, leaded gasoline, etc. Lead was used in household paint until 1978 and was also found in leaded gasoline, some types of batteries, water pipes, and pottery glazes. Lead paint and pipes are still found in many older homes and lead is sometimes also found in water, food, household dust and soil. Lead can be a workplace hazard for people in certain occupations.

Diagnosis is by blood test: Blood lead levels of 10 ug/dL or greater are dangerous to children, even if the person has no apparent symptoms.

A diet that is high in iron and calcium can help protect people against absorbing lead. Treatment of lead poisoning is by chelation therapy, usually in the hospital. Treatment cannot repair damage to the brain done by lead poisoning, but may prevent further damage.

If you think your home has high levels of lead:

  • Have your children tested for lead, even if they seem healthy.
  • Wash children's hands, bottles, pacifiers, and toys often.
  • Make sure children eat healthy, low-fat foods.
  • Get your home checked for lead hazards.
  • Regularly clean floors, window sills, and other surfaces.
  • Wipe soil off shoes before entering house.
  • Talk to your landlord about fixing surfaces with peeling or chipping paint.
  • Take precautions to avoid exposure to lead dust when remodeling or renovating.
  • Don't use a belt-sander, propane torch, dry scraper, or dry sandpaper on painted surfaces that may contain lead.
  • Don't try to remove lead-based paint yourself.

Some Lead Information

  • FACT: Lead exposure can harm young children and babies even before they are born.
  • FACT: Even children that seem healthy can have high levels of lead in their bodies.
  • FACT: People can get lead in their bodies by breathing or swallowing lead dust, or by eating soil or paint chips with lead in them.
  • FACT: People have many options for reducing lead hazards.
  • FACT: Removing lead-based paint improperly can increase the danger to your family.

People can get more lead in their bodies if they:

  • Put their hands or objects covered with lead dust in their mouths,
  • Eat paint chips or soil that contains lead, or
  • Breathe in lead dust (especially during renovations that disturb painted surfaces).

Lead is even more dangerous to children than adults because:

  • Babies and young children often put their hands and other objects in their mouths and these objects can have lead dust on them.
  • Children's growing bodies absorb more lead.
  • Children's developing brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead.

Did you know that...?

  • Many homes built before 1978 have lead-based paint. The federal government banned lead-based paint from housing in 1978. Some states stopped its use even earlier.
  • Lead-based paint that is in good condition is usually not a hazard.
  • Peeling, chipping, chalking, or cracking lead-based paint is a hazard and needs immediate attention.
  • Lead dust can form when lead-based paint is dry scraped, dry sanded or heated. Dust also forms when painted surfaces bump or rub together. Lead chips and dust can get on surfaces and objects that people touch. Settled dust can reenter the air when people vacuum, sweep, or walk through it. Contaminated bare soil can also increase dust lead levels.
  • If lead is not detected early, children with high levels of lead in their bodies can suffer from:
    • Damage to the brain and nervous system
    • Behavior and learning problems (such as hyperactivity)
    • Slowed growth
    • Hearing Problems
    • Headaches
  • Lead is also harmful to adults. Adults can suffer from:
    • Difficulties during pregnancy
    • Other reproductive problems (in both men and women)
    • High blood pressure
    • Digestive problems
    • Nerve disorders
    • Memory and concentration problems
    • Muscle and joint pain

Historical Note: Dr. Julian Chisolm (1921-2001) is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of children from lead poisoning by introducing a treatment called chelation in 1968. It remains the primary way to remove lead from the blood in severe lead poisoning. Chelation involves injecting a chemical into the blood that bonds with the lead, forming a compound that can be excreted in urine. Chisolm also devised a finger-stick test that made it possible to diagnose the early stages of lead poisoning in children quickly and economically.

Current Situation: While severe lead poisoning has now largely disappeared in the US, low-level poisoning remains a problem, especially in inner-city housing built before 1960. A study done by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in 1999 found that nearly 900,000 American preschoolers had lead levels that could hurt their health or their ability to learn.

Source: MedTerms™ Medical Dictionary
Last Editorial Review: 7/1/2016

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