Lead Poisoning - Description

Lead can damage almost every system in the body. It can also cause hypertension (high blood pressure; see hypertension entry). Lead poisoning is especially harmful to fetuses and young children because it damages body systems that are still developing.

The seriousness of lead damage depends on two factors: the amount of lead that gets into the body and the length of time it remains there. Over the long term, lead poisoning in children can lead to learning disabilities (see learning disorders entry), behavior problems, and mental retardation (see mental retardation entry). At very high levels, lead poisoning can cause seizures, coma, and even death.

The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry estimates that one out of every six children in the United States has a high level of lead in his or her blood. One of the most common sources of lead is paint used on walls in homes. At one time, most paint contained lead. As paint gets older, it tends to peel off the walls. Because young children are inclined to put things into their mouths, they often eat these chips of paint. This problem will be less serious in the future—house paints are no longer permitted to contain lead, but old lead paint is still present in many homes.

Chelation therapy:
Treatment with chemicals that bind to a poisonous metal and help the body quickly eliminate it.
Dimercaprol (BAL):
A chemical agent used in chelation therapy.
Edetate calcium disodium (EDTA calcium):
A chemical agent used in chelation therapy.
Succimer (Chemet):
A chemical agent used to remove excess lead from the body.

Another common source of lead is gasoline fumes in the air. Lead compounds were once added to gasoline to make it burn more efficiently. The lead escaped into the air when the gasoline was burned. People inhaled the lead, and it got into their bloodstreams. Today, lead compounds can no longer be used in gasoline.

Lead also gets into people's bodies through water pipes. Water pipes were once made of lead. As water passed through the pipes, it picked up small amounts of lead. When people drank that water, the lead got into their bodies. Plumbers now use copper or plastic tubing rather than lead pipes to prevent this problem.

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