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Heavy Metal: Lead and Its Lingering Effects

Over the last month, Flint, Michigan switched the source of drinking water for thousands of residents to the Flint River, which was improperly treated. The extent of lead exposure from corroded pipes remains unknown. During January, 4.9% of children had elevated lead blood levels, compared to 2.4% previously. Flint is not alone, as elevated lead levels have been found in 70% of water service lines across the country. More than four million American homes with lead paint pose an ongoing hazard.

Very small amounts of lead exposure can create irreversible damage to children: damaging brains, lower IQ, hearing impairment, and behavioral problems. Adults don’t absorb lead as easily as children, so the effects are different. Adults risk high blood pressure, kidney dysfunction, and cognitive decline.

In the body, lead is very dangerous, taking the place of calcium in biological reactions, causing neurons to wither and die and synapses to malfunction. Lead replaces iron in blood, interfering with the production of hemoglobin. It also interferes with proteins that turn genes on and off, and effects can span generations.

Lead can cross the placenta, affecting fetus development and is passed through breast milk to infants. Infants and young children are the most susceptible depending on how much lead is consumed, the age and size of the child, and the time of exposure. Calcium deficiency enhances vulnerability. Children exposed to lead retain 50% of it in bones, teeth, and the brain, while adults retain five to ten percent. Lead is released back into the body during pregnancy, breastfeeding, or menopause. Non-hormonal triggers include chronic illness, broken bones, calcium deficiency, hyperthyroidism, and stress. Symptoms of past lead poisoning may not appear for years.

Every four years, the CDC recommends recalculating the threshold for elevated blood levels. Since lead was removed from paint in 1978 and gasoline in 1996, children today are growing up with 10 times less lead in their bodies that 40 years ago. No amount of lead is “safe” to consume. Chelation therapy removes heavy metals from the blood, but only for people with lead levels over 45 mcg/deciliter. The best prevention is to drink safe water, eat well-balanced diets, use special education services and counseling, and parents who are attentive to changes in their children.

Graham, Judith. “The lowdown on lead and its lingering health effects on children.” Health. Orlando Sentinel, 7 Mar 2016. Web. 8 Mar 2016.

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