Lead Poisoning and Public Health

By: Sahar Maleki

The healthiest communities are the ones that pay extra attention to keeping their young children healthy, as children who are born and raised healthy, grow into healthier, more productive adults who contribute much more to society. In our hometown of Cleveland, one of the major issues threatening the overall public health and especially the health of young children is lead poisoning. An estimated 67% of all housing units across the state were built before the 1980s, and thus contain lead-based hazards. With rates four times the national average, Cleveland is the center of this crisis and the majority of children living in Cuyahoga County are considered to be at high risk for lead exposure. 

But how do children become poisoned by lead? Lead poisoning can happen when lead enters the body through the skin for a prolonged period of time, by breathing, eating, or drinking something that is contaminated. Before 1978, lead was mixed in with paint and other building materials. Thus, exposure to chipped paint, house dust, and even contaminated soil or water that goes through lead pipes, can result in lead poisoning. Consistent exposure to lead can slow growth and development, and cause learning and behavioral issues, as well as damage to the brain, nervous system, kidneys, and other organs. There is no way to reverse the damage from chronic lead exposure and no cure for the ailment, and the only effective way of keeping children and adults healthy is prevention. Children who suffer from high lead levels, often need to be hospitalized and may need chelation therapy as treatment. Once injected to the body, chelators bind to metals in the bloodstream and collect the excessive amounts of heavy metals in the body and release them in urine to clean the body.

Lead is toxic to everyone, but children younger than 6 years are at greater risk for problems if exposed, because their bodies absorb it easier than those of adults. Additionally, young children who start crawling up until the age of 3 are at the highest risk because they tend to put everything in their mouths. Even pregnant mothers exposed to lead can pass it to their unborn babies. The majority of people who suffer from lead poisoning do not show any symptoms. However, lead can silently cause learning, attention or behavioral problems, with some children showing symptoms such as: nausea and vomiting, constipation, feeling tired or irritable, loss of appetite, headaches, joint and muscle pain, among others. In rare instances, confusion and seizures, or even death may occur.  

How can we prevent lead poisoning? Prevention comes in a variety of forms. For instance, testing kids for lead early in childhood, as well as getting our homes and water pipes tested early on, are great measures in poison prevention. Regularly cleaning floors and window sills and using wet mops and wet towels are also great ways to reduce the amount of lead and other toxins indoors. The best form of prevention, however, is doing repairs in the home by employing safe practices to remove lead-based paint, and using lead-safe certified contractors are also highly recommended.

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