Everything You Need To Know About The Toxic Effects Of Lead Poisoning

by Anastasia Iliou
John Haltiwanger

Two years ago, the town of Flint, Michigan, changed its water source to the Flint River instead of Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department. This decision was made in order to cut costs, but now as many as 12,000 kids have been affected by lead poisoning from the water. As Flint is one of the most poverty-stricken cities in the nation, many of these children may not receive the medical attention they so desperately need.

Lead is also silent killer. Many victims of lead poisoning won't show symptoms until large of amounts of it have been accumulated in the body.

What symptoms can you look for?

Lead poisoning is affecting people all across the country. You don't have to drink contaminated water to ingest lead; you can breathe it in. Lead-based paint was banned in 1978, but many older homes across the country still have traces of it in the walls.

Some older toys even used lead-based paint, so always watch what your kids are playing with. Imported toys may contain lead-based paint, as it has not been internationally outlawed. The same goes for foreign gasoline, batteries, jewelry and pottery.

Even though lead poisoning is unlikely to directly show symptoms, the CDC recommends looking for these effects if you think you've been affected:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Exhaustion
  • Head pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pain or tingling in hands and feet
  • Irritable attitude

How is it affecting kids?

Lead directly causes neurological problems, making kids more susceptible because their brains are still developing. Kids are also more likely to ingest it due to sheer curiosity. Also, what kid do you know who has never put their fingers in their mouth?

Toys with lead-based paint may not cause problems by existing in your house, but children who play with said toy and then puts their hands in their mouths are running the risk of ingesting that lead.

What does lead do to your body?

The better question might be, what doesn't it do?

  • Lead lowers adult IQ ingested as a child.
  • It affects every organ system, starting with neurological damage.
  • It damages kidneys.
  • It reduces hemoglobin synthesis.
  • It causes memory loss.
  • It affects the placental barrier (meaning it will affect unborn children).
  • It can cause infertility.
  • It causes heart disease and high blood pressure.

How is it detected and treated?

Lead poisoning is found through blood tests. Normal levels are determined by age group, as lower levels in adults are unlikely to cause harm. But, even the lowest levels in children can be dangerous. A normal level for adults is less than 20 mcg/dl, and it's less than 10 mcg/dl for kids.

Typically, the poisoning is treated by removing the patient from the environment where lead is present. For more severe causes, chelation therapy is used. You take a medication that binds to the lead, and you then push the lead out through excretion. Each treatment costs a little over $100, but upwards of 30 treatments may be necessary.

What now?

The city of Flint is administering free water filters to families because the best way to solve this problem is to limit exposure (which was the city's fault in the first place). The government is also suggesting people use cold water as much as possible because hot water enables lead poisoning.

The helpful tips are great, but they're kind of like someone driving a car through your living room wall and then saying, "It might help if you cover it with a tarp." They're not actually solving the problem, especially considering the fact it doesn't matter how much lead you come into contact with. Minuscule amounts of lead poisoning can lead to dangerous effects.

Michigan governor Rick Snyder signed a bill this past January to grant the city of Flint $28 million and stated, "Let's stand up together as Michiganders to say mistakes were made, problems happened." But, this was kind of a big mistake, Snyder.

Why wasn't the water tested before this decision was made? When did the economy become more important than public health? It's costing a lot more now to fix the problem than it would have cost to continue bringing in water from Detroit.

The $28 million from the state is not enough. Gov. Snyder himself estimated that it would cost $767.5 million to completely rectify the water system. A few weeks later, Snyder enacted a new plan to bring in $195 million more.

Months later, Flint is still under a state of emergency.