Lead: The Dangers No One Is Talking AboutHyla Cass, MD
Almost 40% of American adults have harmful levels in their bodies…
It started with Flint, Michigan, where outraged parents complained of toxic concentrations of lead in their drinking water. But anyone who reads newspapers, watches TV or goes online knows that lead continues to be a national problem.
A Hidden Danger: While attention has largely focused on the potential harms to children (including lasting damage to their developing brains and lowered IQs), adults are not immune to lead toxicity. Here’s how to protect yourself—and your family…
How Damage Occurs
Lead poisons mitochondria (energyproducing structures within each cell), potentially harming your body in several ways. It blocks the production of glutathione, a naturally occurring antioxidant that keeps free radicals (implicated in a host of age-related chronic diseases) in check. The metal also interferes with the production of nitric oxide, a natural vasodilator that keeps blood flowing normally and blood pressure at proper levels.
As with children, high lead levels in adults can impair brain function, leading to memory problems, depression, anxiety, irritability and trouble concentrating. Headaches, insomnia and poor coordination are frequent, as are digestive difficulties such as constipation. Reduced sex drive in adults also can result.
When elevated lead levels persist over a period of years, high blood pressure can develop. Deaths due to cardiovascular disease become 50% more common as blood levels of lead rise, according to research published in the journal Circulation.
Even More Concerning: The increased heart and stroke risks in this research occurred with blood lead concentrations of 2 micro-grams per deciliter (mcg/dL)—less than half the level considered harmful by the CDC and EPA. Lead reaches or exceeds this level in almost 40% of American adults, according to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Should You Be Tested?
Given the prevalence of lead toxicity, you might consider testing if you have one or more of the symptoms mentioned earlier. Age is a factor, too. As bones thin and break down with age, they release lead that may have been stored for decades in the skeleton.
Blood testing is simple and relatively inexpensive but won’t tell the whole story—blood lead levels indicate exposures to the metal only during the past 35 days…and a low reading may mask high levels of lead stored in the bones.
Best Test For Lead: A “provocation test” in which you are given a dose of prescription medication to help release lead from tissues and bones. Then your body’s lead level can be determined by checking for it in the urine collected in the next few hours.
No matter which test you use, the result can best be interpreted by an integrative medicine doctor, a doctor of osteopathy or a naturopathic doctor—all of whom are typically knowledgeable about lead toxicity. To find one near you, consult the American College for Advancement in Medicine (ACAM.org)…the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEMonline.org)…or The Institute for Functional Medicine (FunctionalMedicine.org).
Many integrative practitioners are well versed in treatments, such as chelation therapy. This involves a series of IV injections of a chemical that binds to molecules of lead and other heavy metals for excretion in the urine. Since the body stores are generally so high, the course will likely need repeating as lead continues to be released. The treatment is generally not covered by insurance and costs about $75 to $125 per session. Certain supplements can also be used to help fight lead toxicity, most of which boost glutathione, the body’s master antioxidant. These include vitamin C, N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), quercetin alpha-lipoic acid and cilantro. Discuss such therapy with your physicians first.
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF
Whether or not you already have elevated levels of lead in your body, we’re all at risk and should try to limit exposure. My advice…
• Test your water. This is crucial if you live in a home built before 1986—but lead may also be found in newer homes. Until two years ago, the legal limit for “lead-free” pipes was up to 8% lead. If any questions have been raised about your municipal water supply, get an analysis from your water district. For your own home’s supply, online kits are available or call a professional. The EPA supplies a list of certified labs in your area at EPA.gov/dwlabcert.
If there’s any appreciable amount of lead (or other contaminants such as PCBs) in your water, get a kitchen filter (carbon or reverse osmosis) to remove them. You may also want to consider a whole-house filtration system.
• Limit lead dust. If your home was built before 1978 (when lead paint was banned), have all air ducts thoroughly cleaned to remove lead dust. When stripping paint, use a respirator and protective clothing and scrupulously remove paint chips.
BEST OPTION: Hire a professional who is EPA-certified in lead paint removal. To find such a professional, go to: LeadSafeList.com.
Lead can also be found in the soil, particularly if you live anywhere near a highway or busy street— particles may have settled there from the exhaust of cars using leaded gasoline, which was banned years ago. To avoid tracking lead-containing particulates into your home, remove your shoes before entering. Also test your soil before planting a vegetable garden.
•Avoid lead-containing products. Ceramic dishes and cookware should be made with lead-free glazes. Most US-manufactured items are safe, but there may be lead in imported products. When buying such items, you can check them by using the First Alert lead testing kit that identifies the presence (not the amount) of lead on dishes, toys and other household items. It is available online and at home-improvement stores for about $17.
To confirm that lipstick and other cosmetics are free from lead and other toxins, consult the Environmental Working Group’s database (EWG.org).
•Watch your supplements. Especially with herbs, which can be contaminated with lead, buy only from highly reputable manufacturers that can certify their purity. Look for brands that have been certified by NSF International or The US Pharmacopeia (USP).