No matter how hard you try to live healthy, there’s a very good chance that right now — or a few minutes ago — you were exposed to lead poisoning.
Maybe you were putting on lipstick… or handling an herb from China or Japan… or in contact with soil contaminated by car exhaust or other pollutants.
In the US, lead toxicity continues to be a serious health threat — and not just in children. Many people know that lead is a poison, but few know that it can cause a range of health problems, including fatigue. I regularly see adult patients whose bodies harbor dangerous levels of lead. One of the reasons: In addition to the lead that you are exposed to every day, lead that entered your body decades ago still can linger.
Not too long ago, lead was part of everyday life, appearing in paints, gasoline, household pipes, tin can soldering, crystal goblets and glazed ceramic dishware. Current laws have improved the situation, but lead still is associated with numerous industries and hobbies, such as construction and jewelry-making, for example. In up to 90% of currently occupied homes in the US built before 1940, residents are exposed to lead that leaches into tap water from plumbing. Paint manufactured before 1978 may produce dust or flakes that contain lead. Researchers suggest that the consequences of lead exposure for people born in the latter half of the 20th century will persist through the first half of the 21st century.
HOW LEAD AFFECTS US
Lead inhibits enzymes that affect brain chemicals and oxygen-carrying red blood cells, causing malfunctions in nerve signal transmission, muscle contraction and heartbeat. It depletes the liver’s stores of glutathione, an amino acid vital to detoxification and liver-cell regeneration. Lead may contribute to autoimmune disorders (in which the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues), such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
Children are particularly at risk because they absorb lead more readily… and because their developing organs and nervous systems are more vulnerable to lead’s damaging effects.
Symptoms of lead toxicity include…
- Gastrointestinal problems — abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation.
- Muscular weakness and fatigue.
- Impaired kidney and liver functions.
- Neurological effects — headache, dizziness, tremors, poor memory and possibly dementia.
- Central nervous system problems — mood disorders, sleep disorders, seizures, decreased libido.
- Cardiovascular effects — high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries.
- Reproductive problems — decreased sperm count, menstrual irregularities, increased risk for miscarriage and stillbirth.
- Developmental and behavioral problems in children.
Blood tests can detect lead only if exposure was recent or extreme. Most adults do not meet these criteria. In adults, lead generally has been present for many years, so the body has had time to remove it from the blood and lock it away mainly in the bones, but also in fat, nerves and kidneys. Only 2% of the total lead in an adult body typically remains in the blood, making blood testing unreliable.
Urine testing accuracy depends on how it is done. I spoke with Mary James, ND, a senior health education specialist with Genova Diagnostics, a major testing lab for toxic metals. Dr. James explained that the best tests (which I use with my own patients) involve a chelating agent — a substance that binds to metal, pulling it out of the body’s tissues and sending it into the blood, where it can then be filtered through the liver and kidneys and eliminated via urine and stool. When an oral chelating agent is used, urine tests reveal higher-than-normal lead levels in about 75% of people tested, said Dr. James — compared with a 25% positive rate when a chelating agent is not used.
Who should be tested: Request testing if you have been exposed to lead or exhibit any symptoms of toxicity. Parents who suspect lead exposure should have their children tested.
PREVENTION AND TREATMENT
Calcium competes with lead for absorption in the digestive tract and for storage sites in the bones. With adequate calcium, you retain less lead. As a general preventive measure, I recommend that all teens and adults take 500 milligrams (mg) to 600 mg of calcium twice daily… and that children ages three to 12 take 500 mg once daily.
If lead toxicity is diagnosed, do not delay treatment. The longer lead remains in the body, the more difficult it is to get out. Still, even if the metal has been inside the body for decades, treatment can improve symptoms considerably, especially for young to middle-aged adults. Sadly, some damage may be irreversible in older adults and in children whose cognitive function has been impaired.
Chelation treatment is needed to pull lead from tissues so that it can be excreted. The form used depends on the severity of toxicity. Options (from least to most aggressive) include oral medication taken five to seven days a week… rectal suppositories used every other night before bedtime… or intravenous (IV) therapy for one to three hours weekly.
Patients must have kidney and liver function tests done before starting chelation to ensure that treatment will not overtax the organs responsible for detoxification. Naturopathic physicians and holistic medical doctors administer all types of chelation…and chiropractors provide oral chelation. Most people experience little or no discomfort, though side effects may include skin rash, digestive upset, fatigue, cloudy thinking and/or moodiness. Treatment typically takes from two to eight months, depending on symptom severity. Follow-up testing indicates when treatment is complete. Unfortunately, insurance rarely covers chelation.
To guard against mineral loss during treatment, supplement daily with a high-potency multivitamin/mineral plus an additional 1,200 mg of calcium and 600 mg of magnesium. I also recommend Heavy Metal Support from Thorne Research (800-228-1966, Thorne.com), available online…or OptiCleanse GHI or OptiCleanse Plus by Xymogen (800-647-6100, Xymogen.com), available through health-care professionals.
If you have lead toxicity, ask your doctor for a blood test to measure iron levels. Iron-deficient people absorb two to three times more lead than those with adequate iron. If necessary, your doctor can prescribe iron supplements. Caution: Do not take iron unless diagnosed with a deficiency — excess iron damages the liver.
Smart: If you suspect that any portion of your home was last painted before 1978 — when paint containing lead was banned — paint over it to minimize flakes or dust that might pose a threat. If your home was built before 1940, install a charcoal filter on each water tap.
JOBS AND HOBBIES LINKED TO LEAD EXPOSURE
As mentioned above, lead exposure continues to be a potential problem in more than 900 vocations and avocations. If you are involved in any of the following, ask your doctor to test you for lead toxicity…
- Battery manufacturing
- Chemical industries
- Construction or demolition
- Firing ranges
- Gasoline additives production
- Lead mining, smelting, soldering or refining
- Pigment manufacturing
- Plastics industries
- Sewage treatment