WVU doctor warns of dangers associated with lead

Older homes and new toys put some at risk

A scent-free, invisible toxin is contaminating some homes, toys, and even lipsticks.  The level of lead detected in these places and products can – even in small amounts – result in serious health problems, according to West Virginia University doctors.

“Lead affects almost every organ system in the body,” Alan Ducatman, M.D., chair of Community Medicine at the WVU School of Medicine, said.  “The biggest cause for concern is lead’s effect on the central nervous system, particularly for a child’s developing brain because of its sensitivity to lead’s affects.”

Lead occurs naturally in the atmosphere but human exposure has increased over the years due to fossil fuel burning, mining and manufacturing.  Lead is also used as a plasticizer for many products, making everything – from inexpensive toys to pricey lipsticks – soft and flexible.  According to Dr. Ducatman, the most common source of lead exposure is interior house paint.  Homes built before the late 1970s could contain lead-based paint. 

“Children don’t have to eat the paint to become exposed to lead,” Ducatman said.  “The paint surface eventually begins dusting off of the walls and falls onto window seals and carpets.  Young children are playing on the carpets or crawling around on the floor, and then they put their hands in their mouth.  That’s when the lead gets ingested.”

If the lead exposure is high, symptoms appear quickly.  However, Ducatman said it is more common for symptoms to develop over time, since lead exposure usually happens gradually. 

Symptoms in children might include increased irritability, diarrhea or constipation. 

“It’s very difficult for children to verbalize their aches and pains, so it’s important to test children for lead poisoning,” Ducatman said.  A pediatrician or the local health department can do a finger stick test to look for traces of lead in the blood.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, lead levels as low as ten micrograms can cause irreversible learning disabilities and behavioral problems.  Levels higher than 20 micrograms can cause abdominal pain, seizures and death.  Symptoms are not evident until high levels of lead are already present in the body.

“It does not take a large amount of lead to damage someone’s health,” Ducatman said.  “Pencils are no longer lead-based but, if you imagine the tip of a sharpened pencil – that’s all the lead it takes to poison a child.” 

According to Ducatman, studies show that lead exposure can lead to lower performance levels on intelligence and coordination tests. 

Adults, while slightly less susceptible to lead poisoning than children, are still at risk.  Lead exposure can lead to fertility problems. It can also cause kidney damage or weakness in fingers, wrists or ankles.

 “Lead is a very strong toxin,” he said.  “We get rid of it from our blood quickly but lead is also stored in our body’s metabolism compartment where it travels into our bones and teeth.  It stays there for a long period of time.” 

Ducatman said it is important to get tested, particularly for people living in homes built before the late 1970s.  Residents can purchase a lead test kit from hardware stores to see if their house contains high levels of lead. 

For more information on healthcare at WVU, visit www.health.wvu.edu

- WVU -

For more information:
Cassie Waugh, HSC News Service, (304) 293-7087
cw: 12-17-07

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