Lead: Environmental Exposure and Health Effects
This article was composed by Arun Subrumanian, M.D. Dr. Subramanian is currently completing his student practicum with the Genesee County Health Department.
It has been well known for more than three decades that some metals can cause harmful health effects in humans. Lead is one of the metals which is associated with numerous adverse health effects, especially in children. Lead has been used, and has been causing lead poisoning, since the time of the Roman Empire, when it was a component of wine casks, cooking pots, and water pipes. In fact, the Latin word for lead is “plumbum,” the origin of the English word “plumbing.” Even today, a major source of lead exposure for millions of American children is water contaminated with lead from lead pipes or from lead solder used with copper pipes. The use of lead in pipes was phased out in the 1980s, and newer homes use plastic plumbing. Lead is believed to be the single most important environmental threat to the health of American children, who may be exposed to it from a variety of sources.
Until the 1980s, lead was a significant air pollutant, emitted from the tail pipes of motor vehicles that burned leaded gasoline. As a result of the phasing out of leaded gas, lead levels in the air have dropped to negligible amounts. Lead was also a component of paint, both interior and exterior, until its use was banned in 1977. Children, especially those who live in old, substandard housing, are still significantly exposed when they chew on chips of old peeling paints or when they put dirty hands in their mouth if the dirt is contaminated with dust from deteriorating paint. Attempts to remove old lead containing paints can sometimes be even more hazardous if it turns to airborne dust when sanded or sandblasted off a surface and inhaled. Lead in toys is of special concern because young children often put them in their mouths. Consumer advocates note that toy safety is largely the responsibility of the companies that produce or import them.
Lead metal is known to have harmful effects on the brain and nervous system, especially those of children. It also damages red blood cells and kidneys. Over the past three decades, evidence has shown that even low levels of lead can slow a child’s development and can cause learning and behavioral problems. Therefore, the Environmental Protection Agency, which sets the permissible levels of toxic substances, has steadily lowered the permissible level for lead from 60 micrograms per deciliter of blood in 1970 to 10 micrograms at present. The adverse effects reinforce the importance of screening for lead in blood and continued measures to eliminate or control lead sources in children's environments. The federal government recommends that all young children poor enough to be eligible for Medicaid be screened for lead in the blood and New York state has extended the mandate to children of all income levels.
To protect against the risk of creating hazardous lead dust and chips caused by activities that disturb the lead based paint and common renovation activities, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued he Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule. It requires that firms performing renovation and painting projects that disturb lead based paint in pre-1978 homes, childcare facilities and schools be certified by EPA. They must also use certified renovators who are trained by EPA-approved training providers to follow lead-safe work practices. Lead-safe work practices include three simple procedures such as containing the work area, minimizing dust, and cleaning up thoroughly. More public health policies that limit the use of lead in consumer products and that control or eliminate residential lead paint hazards will not only support the goal of eliminating elevated blood lead levels but also help prevent adverse health effects at lower exposure levels.
~ A healthier lifestyle will benefit all areas of your life. ~
For more information on preventing Lead Poisoning talk to your health care provider, or call the Genesee County Health Department at 585-344-2580 ext. 5555