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Lead Exposure and Children’s Mental Health


A Brief History of Lead and Humans

Human beings have a long relationship with lead. Historical evidence shows we first mined lead around 6,500 B.C.E. in the area of modern-day Turkey. Because of its low melting point and workability, lead has been used for countless purposes since ancient times. We use it as a food preservative and condiment. It’s an ingredient in makeup and pigment in paints. It’s also a cost-effective way to produce pewter pots, pans, plates, cups, and flatware. Additionally, we use it to make pipes for plumbing. Lead toxicity has long been known to humans. We documented issues with lead as long ago as 200 B.C.E.

Lead Poisoning in Humans

Scientific studies confirming the adverse effects of lead poisoning were first published in the 19th century. In the U.S., the steady accumulation of evidence over the following century led to the implementation of strict controls, beginning in the 1970s. Environmental law now restricts the lead content in gasoline, paints, and industrial processes. According the Environmental Protection Agency, excessive lead exposure causes numerous serious health problems. Most of us know the associated problems as lead poisoning.

In adults, lead poisoning can lead to damage to the brain and nervous system, high blood pressure, hearing and vision damage, reproductive issues, and retarded fetal development. In children, even low levels of lead poisoning can cause kidney damage, liver damage, damage to the brain and nervous system, anemia, and loss of hearing. It can also cause developmental issues and behavior problems such as hyperactivity. In some cases, lead exposure in children can even lead to death. Children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning due to their relatively small size and body weight. There’s also the fact that kids are more likely to play with dirt and put unknown objects into their mouths.

Low Level Lead Exposure in Children: Recent Evidence from Asia

In addition to the general health problems lead poisoning causes in children, studies published over the past fifteen years show that lead poisoning also has negative effects on children’s cognitive function and IQ levels. Now, a study conducted in China between 2003 and 2006 reveals even more bad news.

Researchers measured levels of lead content in blood in over 1,300 students aged 3-5. They examined students from four preschools in the Jiangsu province. Then they followed up with questionnaires answered by the student’s teachers about three years later. Results show that students exposed to even low levels of lead displayed an increase in emotional symptoms like anxiety, depression, and other “pervasive developmental issues.”

What Parents Can Do About Lead Exposure

The Centers for Disease Control has concluded that “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified.” In a bulletin updated in 2014, the CDC informs parents that lead can be found in imported home remedies and other imports. Clay pots, paint in homes built before 1978, water pumped through pipes made with lead, and many other household products contain lead.  Makeup, candy, and jewelry are on the watchlist. To avoid lead exposure in children, the CDC advises parents to keep children away from home renovation activities such as sanding and demolition. They also advise parents to remove recalled toys and jewelry from the presence of children. Finally, they advise parents to immediately clean up any dust or chips they see that come from peeling paint.

In light of this evidence from China, awareness of lead exposure is increasingly important for parents and children’s health professionals. The evidence is overwhelming and irrefutable. Lead is incredibly toxic to humans. Children are especially vulnerable to its ill-effects. The recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan becomes more alarming in light of the evidence. Both the EPA and the CDC say it unequivically. Exposure to lead, even in small amounts, is extremely harmful to both the short- and long-term health of children.

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