We've long known that a child exposed to lead in the womb or in his or her first six years is susceptible to permanent brain damage, and more recent research has shown that this damage extends to the heart and cardiovascular system as well. Children exposed to lead from the dust of lead paint, contaminated dirt or even toys and other children's products suffer from reduced IQ, learning and behavioral problems and other developmental damage.
But lead poisoning can also be a problem for adults.
High levels are poisonous, and can kill. Lower levels affect multiple organ systems. A recent study published in Neuropsychology found that even adults are not immune from brain damage from lead. Those exposed to lead in battery manufacturing plants (other industries that expose adults to lead include semiconductor fabrication, ceramics, welding and soldering, and some construction work) had "significantly lower cognitive scores," according to a University of Pittsburgh study.
Who is most likely to be exposed? That question is answered in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report published this week: 95% of adults (over age 16) with elevated blood levels are exposed to lead while at work.
The good news is that blood lead levels in American adults has declined significantly in the past 15 years. Between 1994 and 2007, blood lead levels dropped from 14 per µg/dL to 7.2 -- a drop of nearly 50%.
But some Americans continue to be more at risk of lead poisoning, and the health problems associated with high blood lead levels. Those most likely to be affected include:
Outside of work, people are most likely to be exposed to lead by:
Other, less common sources of non-occupational exposure to lead came from various hobbies, habits and lifestyles: casting (e.g., bullets and fishing weights), eating nonfood items, certain unspecified alternative medicines, ceramics, stained glass and eating from leaded cookware.
Outside of gun enthusiasts and work, then, the big causes of lead exposure are from remodeling, renovating and painting your home (because older homes are likely to contain lead paint that is easy to stir up and inhale as dust) -- and from eating food contaminated with lead (possibly from gardening in lead-contaminated soil).
If you're remodeling an older home, it's best to hire a contractor trained to deal with lead. The process includes rigorous methods to reduce and contain dust, and to clean the area after work is complete. If you have young children, it's best not to renovate until they're grown. As for gardening, many states have agricultural extension services that will perform lead soil tests at little or no cost. Before planting a garden -- particularly if it's in a city environment, near a road or on land that had been previously developed -- it's a good idea to test the soil before planting.
If you are exposed to lead at work, you can reduce the health effects through a good nutritious diet, rich in calcium and iron (along with vitamin C to help absorb the iron). Our Lead Poisoning Prevention Diet compiles those ingredients most rich in those three key nutrients, and couples each with delicious recipes.
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