Hematology

Lead poisoning

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Lead poisoning
portrait of Ignacio Antépara Ercoreca Ph.D.
Written by

Ignacio Antépara Ercoreca Ph.D.
Medically reviewed by our Medical staff

Last update: 22-03-2022

How else can it be called?

  • Saturnism

  • Plumbism

  • Painter's colic

  • CIE-10: T56.0

What is lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning refers to the accumulation of lead in body tissues. The lead is built up in the body when a person swallows or inhales it.

The lead exposure can damage the brain, the nerves and many other parts of the body. Lead poisoning is more common in children.

Which types of lead poisoning are there?

There are two different forms of lead poisoning:

  • Acute lead poisoning: When a large amount of lead is absorbed in a short period. It is rare.
  • Chronic lead poisoning: When small amounts of lead are absorbed over a long period. Chronic poisoning is more common in children.

What is the cause of lead poisoning?

Before knowing how harmful lead could be, it was widely used in several products. Some of them are no longer produced, but they can still be found in houses:

The main sources of lead nowadays are:

  • Lead-based paint: Walls and floors painted with dyes that contain lead are still frequent in older homes. There can be found also in old painted furniture. Children may eat paint chips from older homes or suck contaminated walls or furniture (lead-based paints were banned in the U.S. for residential use in 1978).
  • Pipes: Water pipes in old houses were built with lead. The exposition to lead was due to water consumption. Some newer copper pipes was still weld with lead.
  • Leaded gasoline: This type of gasoline, that are not used nowadays, contains lead. In the USA, leaded gasoline was banned in 1996. However, some dust and soil can still be contaminated with lead from emissions of leaded gasoline.
  • Folk medicines: Some folk medicines such as Azarcon and Greta used for indigestion or traditional cosmetics like kohl (made by grinding stibnite) contain large amounts of lead.
  • Old toys or jewelry.
  • Pottery or stained glass may contain lead.

What incidence does it have?

It is believed that 1 in 40 children ages 1-5 years have blood lead levels over the recommend rate.

Which are the main symptoms?

Excessive lead may affect to multiple body systems and be linked to high blood pressure.

Lead exposure during pregnancy may have an impact on the developing brain. Lead accumulation may also have impact on infants and young children. It increases the probability of suffering lower IQs, slowed growth, behavioral disorders or hearing loss.

Lead poisoning may include nonspecific symptoms such as:

  • Weakness
  • Irritability
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Abdominal pain

In case of an acute lead poisoning, with a large amount of lead in the body, the symptoms may include severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, seizures, coma and even the death.

How can it be diagnosed?

The best way to diagnose lead poisoning is to test the level of lead in the blood. A value over 5 µgr/dl is considered enough evidence for adverse health effects in children and adults.

What is the recommended treatment?

The first step in treating lead poisoning is to avoid further contact with lead (remove or change lead pipes, lead-based paints, etc.). This work should be carried out by professionals with special training (do not do it yourself).

If blood levels of lead are high enough, chelation therapy may also be prescribed. Chelation agents bind to the lead and help the body pass it in urine at a faster rate. The most used for this purpose are:

  • Edetate calcium disodium (EDTA calcium) given intravenously.
  • BAL (British Antilewisite o dimercaprol). It is also given intravenously.
  • Succimer (Dimercaptosuccinic acid or DMSA). It is taken by mouth. It is usually sold under the trade name Chemet.
  • D-Penicillamine taken by mouth.

What is the prognosis of saturnism?

If acute lead poisoning reaches the stage of seizures and coma, there is a high risk of permanent brain damage or death.

The long-term effects of lower levels of lead can also be permanent and severe. However, if chronic lead poisoning is caught early, these negative effects can be limited.

Medically reviewed by our Medical staff on 22-03-2022

Bibliography

  • The Gale Encyclopedia of medicine. Second Edition. Jacqueline L. Longe. Vol 3. pag 1965. ISBN 0-7876-5492-2
  • Centro nacional de información sobre el plomo de Estados Unidos: Available on: https://www.epa.gov
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency Available on: https://www.epa.gov

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