Lead Poisoning and Contamination, Sources, Symptoms, Treatment

Water contaminated with lead is not a new phenomenon. It has gained widespread attention in recent years due to various health scares often associated with water pollution by industries, aging water systems, lead-based paints, cosmetics and gasoline. Despite rigrous controls in the United States, lead exposure cannot be totally eradicated. Sometimes the exposure is so high that it leads to poisoning.

What is lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning is an accumulation of lead in the body where it causes various disorders and disturbances. Even small amounts of lead exposure can be dangerous. Usually poisoning is a result of months or even years of exposure to lead. At very high levels it can lead to death. It is important to note that no amount of lead in the body is safe. Although lead occurs naturally, it is usually found deep in the ground.

Most cases of lead poisoning these days is due to ingestion of edible or non-edible substances contaminated with lead. Children tend to be more often affected since the aborption of lead in the gut is greater in children than in adults. Lead poisoning in adults is more often associated with occupational exposure like with workers in the battery industry. Men tend to be more often affected than women.

What happens with lead in the body?

Lead can enter the body through inhalation (breathing it in) and ingestion (consumed in water, food or non-edible substances). It then enters the bloodstream where it binds to red blood cells and is the distributed throughout the body. The lead seeps into the soft tissues throughout the body including the kidneys, liver, brain and bone marrow. It can be stored in the bone marrow for long periods of time, even for decades.

The main way that lead causes ill-effects is by increasing the amount of free radicals within the cells. It also impairs the production of natural antioxidants which can counteract the free radicals. Due to this effect, lead causes an increase in oxidative stress within cells. As a result there is damage to the cell membrane. Although lead in the bloodstream can be excreted in bile and urine, the rate varies.

Sources of Lead

There are various sources of lead in the environment beyond the industrial setting. The main sources of lead exposure these days is through lead pain, gasoline, soil and water. Food may be affected with contaminated soil and water as well as lead in the dust within a home. Less commonly lead exposure may occur as a result of contact with lead-glazed pottery, certain toys, traditional remedies and some cosmetics.

Lead Paint

In the past lead-based paints were commonly used and may still be present in older homes. Small particles that break off may be airborne and therefore inhaled. It can also be consumed, usually by children or contaminate food and water within the home. Lead-based paints are still a relatively common source of lead poisoning these days. Some imported toys may still contain lead-based paints and can be a source of contamination in children.

Gasoline and Soil

Leaded gasoline was the norm in the past and this was expelled in exhaust fumes. The lead could also contaminate soil if gasoline has seeped into it. While leaded gasoline is not as much of source these days in developed countries, the contaminated soil may still pose a problem to this day. This soil can also contribute to airborne dust within the house resulting in lead inhalation.


The main problem with water contaminated with lead is due to the piping through which it is carried. Lead piping and copper piping soldered with lead are the main causes of water contamination. Another possible source is industries where leads is released as an affluent in water although environmental regulations usually minimizes this from occurring these days.

Symptoms of Lead Poisoning

The symptoms of lead poisoning may vary between children and adults. It may also vary based on when a person was exposed to lead, for how long they were exposed as well as the quantity of lead that has entered the system. Lead affects the entire body but the more prominent symptoms involves the nerves and brain, blood, digestive system, kidneys, heart and blood vessels, and the reproductive system.

Newborns and Children

  • Impaired growth (infants)
  • Developmental delays
  • Learning difficulty
  • Hearing loss
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal pain


  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Headaches
  • Pain, numbness and tingling of the arms/legs (peripheral neuropathy)
  • Muscle aches
  • Joint pains
  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Cognitive impairement including memory loss
  • Mood disorders
  • Abnormal or reduced sperm count
  • Preterm births
  • Miscarriage

The signs and symptoms of lead poisoning may not always be obvious or immediate following identifiable lead exposure. At times lead poisoning may be mistaken for a host of other conditions before heavy metal toxicity is tested for and lead poisoning is conclusively diagnosed.

Treatment of Lead Poisoning

Medical treatment may not always be necessary for lead poisoning but prevention to further lead exposure is paramount. If a case is not considered to be severe, the focus would be on removing the source of the lead exposure and managing any conditions or symptoms that arise. In severe cases, medical treatment is necessary. This includes the use of the following drugs:

  • Chelating agents that bind to lead in the bloodstream and promotes its exceretion from body through urine or bile. This is known as chelation therapy.
  • Antidotes prevent the toxic effects of lead by binding it. Not all antidotes promote excretion like chelating agents. These drugs do not completely eliminate the toxic effects of lead.

It is important to note that these drugs are not a cure for lead poisoning and are not 100% effective in eliminating lead from the system or neutralizing it. Treatment can also not reverse many of the effects of long term lead exposure. The key is to prevent any further lead exposure and this should be the main priority.  This may not always be an easy undertaking but it is essential to prevent the complications of lead exposure.


  1. www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/lead/
  2. emedicine.medscape.com/article/1174752-overview
  3. www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lead-poisoning/basics/definition/con-20035487

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