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Lead Poisoning

Symptoms and treatment

Lead poisoning is less common now than in decades past, but it's still a serious problem. Lead, a heavy metal, acts as a poison when it enters the body. Worse still is that lead has a cumulative property, meaning that it can build up in the body over a period of time and cause problems.

Young children are especially at risk for lead poisoning, due to their small size and still-developing bodies and nervous systems. It's a sad fact that most children have measurable levels of lead in their blood, whether or not they show any symptoms.

So at what level is lead in the body considered unsafe? Nobody really knows. Levels that once were considered safe are not anymore. It's best to say that no amount of lead in the body, no matter how minute, can be assumed acceptable.

Lead is used in many products that we take for granted, although it's being removed from many whenever possible. Gasoline is one example. Lead was once a common ingredient in gasoline. Car exhaust would often cause soil contamination as well as leave lead particles in the air. People, especially children, who lived in large cities were at greater risk because of this pollution.

Old paint is another very common source. Many older homes have leaded paint that can peel, and then be chewed on and ingested by toddlers. Paint flakes and paint dust containing lead are both hazardous. Some homeowners choose to have the paint professionally removed. Others may opt to have the paint sealed. That way, the original paint is still intact, but it's far less likely to be a danger.

Older toys, or new ones painted overseas, are also a problem. Lead paint has been outlawed in the U.S. for many years, but some countries still use them. Since young children tend to put everything in their mouths, this is a special worry. Avoid buying toys from companies or countries that have had a problem with lead paint, unless the issue has been totally resolved. Do not allow small children to play with painted toys made before 1978, to be on the safe side.

Other sources of lead include:

  • Old pipes. Lead pipes can contaminate drinking water.
  • Pewter items. Some newer "pewter" is unleaded, and safe – but never use pewter items with food or drink, even if this is their intended purpose.
  • Some glazes used on pottery or ceramic items.
  • Some cosmetics.
  • Cheap jewelry, especially kids' jewelry.

What About Pencils?

Many people are concerned about getting lead poisoning from chewing on pencils. While this may be a bad habit, it's not a health risk. Pencil lead isn't really lead at all – it's graphite, which is harmless.


There are many signs and symptoms of lead poisoning. Some of the most common are:

  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleeping problems
  • Poor memory
  • Fatigue
  • Aggressiveness / other behavior issues
  • Low IQ / problems with school, work
  • Anemia
  • Cramping / abdominal pain / constipation
  • Vomiting, seizures (in severe cases)


The most common treatment is known as chelation therapy. This is given in either pill form or as an injection, and causes the lead in the blood to bind together, which the body can excrete safely. However, this can be a long and costly procedure. There are also some other drugs, such as EDTAs (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) to treat higher lead levels, but these are not common.

The best treatment for most people is preventive: remove the source of the lead. Avoiding exposure whenever possible is the best way to prevent lead poisoning in the first place.

By Laureen Manera

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