Why Should I be Concerned about the Effects of Lead Exposure in Childhood?

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In recent times, there’s been a lot of conversation on what should go in, on or around a person. You may have a health care professional recommend that you swallow something, accept an injection, or even sport a new fashion accessory. Yet with all these recommendations, there’s at least one thing that the health care community advises against having anything to do with. You guessed it: it’s lead!

Lead poisoning was in the news again a few years ago, when lead was found in the water in Flint, Michigan. In recent months, any news of lead has been eclipsed by a lot of other items, not the least of which is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. A couple of months ago, however, new, concerning information was brought forth by a study of the effects of childhood lead exposure in midlife. We’ll talk a little more about that in a minute. But first, what is lead poisoning, and why are we concerned?

Some Lead Basics

Although lead has been discussed in these pages before, a brief review is in order. Lead is a chemical element that is present in the environment. It was present in paint until 1978. Although steps were taken earlier to remove it earlier, any house built before that is at risk for having been painted with a lead-based paint. Even if a home has been fully renovated since then, it may be in the soil. Since children put everything—including soil—in their mouths, they can accumulate lead in the body that way.

As we’ve seen from the Flint tragedy, drinking water can harbor lead if it’s in the pipes. And although the days when lead was present in toothpaste tubes are gone, many people still have lead exposure through their job or hobby. (The highest lead level I’ve ever seen in a child was through indirect exposure to auto repair products.)

And yes, lead is one of those substances in the environment that you don’t want in your body. High levels can settle in the tissues; in particular, it can cause problems in the brain. At the highest levels, it can cause seizures, coma—even death. What we see most these days are low levels of lead poisoning, which can cause learning and developmental problems in a child. For this reason, the goal is to eliminate any chance of lead getting into the body.

So….Lead Is Still a Problem?

Although we don’t use lead in paint or gasoline anymore, there is a significant amount of residual lead from the period when we did. Coupled with exposures from occupations, hobbies, and folk remedies, to name a few things, and considering that we accept no lead level above zero as normal, it absolutely is a problem.

Just to get an idea of how much of an issue it still is, consider a study out of Chicago that was reported earlier this year in the journal Pediatrics. It was found that 3.5 percent of children in Chicago had an elevated blood lead level—and they used a slightly higher level than “anything above zero” as their cutoff, meaning there is probably even more concern than was reported in this study.

I was curious about the levels in Florida, where I live and work and where much of the housing is arguably newer. Based on a similar definition of “lead poisoning” to the one used in Chicago, there were over 1100 cases in 2019. Thus, it’s likely worth paying attention to no matter where you live.

Lead Is Still Being Researched

Although we’ve known for a while that any elevation of lead can have seemingly subtle effects on learning and development in kids, a recent study took that one step further. The researchers took individuals who had had lead levels drawn as children and took pictures (by MRI) of their brains at age 45. Among other things, they found that the surface area of the brain’s cortex was smaller and that the brain “aged” more in subjects who had an elevated childhood lead. The higher the lead, the greater the difference.

We’ve thus seen that lead is still with us, that the risks of even low levels appear real, and that there is always more to learn about this metal. It’s important to know the environment that your child is in, to minimize your lead exposure while pregnant—and, if your child’s provider wants to measure a lead level, realize it’s for a very good reason.

Stan Sack
Dr. Stan Sack has 29 years’ experience as a primary care pediatrician in Massachusetts and Florida. A medical writer since 2015, he enjoys blogging on topics that are on parents’ minds but are covered less often in books and on websites. He lives in the Florida Keys with his family and enjoys healthy cooking, fitness activities and singing in his spare time.

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