By Lim Ju-won
Lead poisoning is a serious medical problem that affects not only adults working in occupations with possible exposure but also children and pregnant women.
Defined as too much lead in the body, the poisoning is seen as an elevated lead blood level count of over 10 mcg/dL (micrograms per deciliter); but there is no real safe level for lead in the body.
Though most people with lead poisoning show no major symptoms, others might experience abdominal pain, constipation, poor appetite, vomiting, lethargy, irritability and difficulty in concentrating.
Chronic exposure to lead can increase the risk of hypertension, and cognitive and kidney problems even if the level is too low to trigger symptoms. In children, lead poisoning can cause learning and memory problems.
Even small amounts of lead can harm a child’s brain and nervous system because they are both highly susceptible to exposure and are not fully developed. In pregnant women, even slight elevations in blood lead levels may have potential adverse effects on the developing fetus.
Adults can get lead poisoning if they have a job or a hobby that involves using materials that have lead in them. If they are painting walls or floors or working in battery recycling or in a plant that processes lead, they can become poisoned.
Children can get lead poisoning in a few different ways ― they can inhale lead in dust, swallow it in water or food, or by sucking on toys. When paint made with lead in old houses slowly peels, the lead gets into the dust. Children often eat up peeling paint and inhale dust that has lead in it.
It’s important to screen occupational adults, pregnant women, and children at high risk to lead poisoning ― there are blood or urine tests that do this, as measuring lead in hair strands is not as accurate or reliable. The blood lead level is a good indicator of exposure that reflects both recent exposure within a few weeks, and the release of previously stored lead from bone and soft tissue.
If blood lead levels are over 50 mcg/dL, doctors suggest chelation therapy to get rid of the lead. It is necessary to take a medicine in pills or shots to pull the lead out of the body. If the blood level remains above 10 to 20 mcg/dL, removal from exposure is the most important management. The blood lead level should be as low as possible; less than 20 mcg/dL, and ideally below 10 mcg/dL; and under 5 mcg/dL for pregnant women.
The most important thing to prevent poisoning is to avoid exposure to lead in paint, soil and other sources such as toys or jewelry. Clean up chipping and peeling paint around your home. If you are able to identify sources of lead poisoning, clean them up from your house in the right way.
Another way to prevent the effects of lead poisoning is to eat a diet rich in calcium, vitamin D, vitamin C, and iron. Lean meat, eggs, greens, milk, cheese and yogurt are high in iron and calcium. Tomatoes, oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, papaya, mangoes, cantaloupe and strawberries are also high in vitamin C.
The author is an assistant professor at Seoul National University Hospital International Healthcare Center (SNUH-IHC).