The Danger of Lead

The lead contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan that has been ongoing for several years now has brought to light the danger of lead in our homes, neighborhoods, and bodies. As the people of Flint fight to get their water free of the deadly substance, more cities across the nation are taking stock of the serious threat that lead poses.

As many of you who have been around long enough to see it, lead was everywhere in the not-too-distant past. Lead based gasoline and paint were some of the most common uses. Many of our cities underground utilities were built with lead pipes. As people became more aware of the dangers of lead, its use was reduced, but the scars of the past remain.

leadI recently came across an article in the Atlantic Monthly that details another lead crisis in one of our cities, this time in New Orleans. After years of neglect for the city’s public housing projects, thousands of children and adults were subjected to lead poising from lead paint, pipes, and contaminated soil. Even though these residents were aware of the lead issue, dozens of lawsuits did little to fix the problem.

I highly recommend you read the article entitled “The Lead Poisoned Generation” to get a sense of this issue.

Thankfully most us don’t have to face the same obstacles that those in the New Orleans housing projects dealt with, but that doesn’t mean we’re safe from the danger of lead. The first step to solving this issue is through understanding.

What is Lead Poisoning?

lead 02Lead poisoning happens when a person is exposed to lead over a long period of time. Even small amounts of lead can cause significant problems. The substance builds up in the body over the months and years of exposure, getting progressively worse.

Breathing in particles from lead paint, like in New Orleans, drinking water that comes from lead contaminated sources like in Flint, or living near major roadways that are still affected by the use of lead gasoline in years past can all result in lead poisoning.

What are the symptoms?

Lead can have varied and unusual effects on the body. It affects people of different ages in different ways, but you should be aware of what the signs are.

The Mayo Clinic breaks down the symptoms as follows:

Lead poisoning symptoms in children

As you can see, the effects of lead poisoning are diverse, and can easily be dismissed as the result of some other health problem. Most people have no idea they have lead poisoning until their blood is tested. If you are afraid of lead exposure for any reason, or if you show some or any of the symptoms listed above, you should definitely get your blood tested for lead.

Read more on lead poisoning symptoms, causes and treatments from the Mayo Clinic

How Can I Be Sure My Home Is Safe?

lead 04To get a sense of weather you might me exposed to lead in your home, you must consider three possible sources of lead contamination: water, paint, and soil.

Water – The service line that connects you to your well or municipal water supply may be made with lead. If the city is responsible, they will act to make sure the lead doesn’t end up in the water supply. This lack of action was the main cause of the Flint water crisis. The pipes within your house could contain lead as well, especially if you live in an older house. If you have an older house, testing the water is key. You can head off minor lead issues by running your water for a period of time after it goes for a while without being turned on.

To determine if your pipes have lead, you can check out this good guide called “Here’s How To Tell If You Have Lead Pipes In Your Home.”

lead 05Paint – In 1978, the government limited the ability of paint makers to include lead. However, up until that point many houses had interiors and exteriors that were painted with lead-based paint. According to the EPA, houses built before 1940 are 87% more likely to contain lead paint!

Most of the time if the paint is covered up by modern paint, the lead will be sealed in and won’t present serious danger. However, if the paint/walls deteriorate, lead particles could get into the air.

To learn about recognizing and dealing with lead sources in your home, check out this guide by the EPA.

lead 06Soil – Lead can contaminate soils, both from old exhaust from lead-powered automobiles and from runoff, nearby construction projects, and other sources. Public places and even playgrounds across the country have been found to be contaminated with lead. It’s a bit of a scary unknown, but keep open ears and eyes for potential lead contamination in yards, playgrounds, or public places.

This interactive map shows areas in the US where the danger for lead contamination is higher.

As you can see, this is quite an alarming percentage of the country’s most populated areas.

The Final Word

Clearly, lead contamination and poisoning is a serious issue that people all over the world have to come to terms with. The more you know and are aware of this substance, the better your chance of avoiding contamination. If you ever question whether your water, home, or body may be contaminated, get tested right way. The effects of lead are cumulative, so the longer you wait, the worse off you might ultimately be.

Stay vigilant for yourself, your family, and your neighbors.


Dr. Johnson