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Adult Lead Poisoning

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Lead poisoning is a medical condition caused by increased levels of the heavy metal lead in the body.  Lead interferes with a variety of biologic processes and is toxic to many organs and tissues, including the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys and reproductive and nervous systems.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that a blood lead level of 5 μg/dL or above is a cause for concern; however, lead may impair development and have harmful health effects even at lower levels, and there is no known safe exposure level.

What is lead?
What lead level is considered elevated in adults?
What are the signs and symptoms of lead poisoning?
Acute Poisoning signs and symptoms
Chronic Poisoning signs and symptoms
How do you test for lead poisoning?
What are some sources of lead exposure?
How can you reduce exposure to lead?
How is lead poisoning treated?
Additional Resources

What is lead?

Lead is a chemical element in the carbon group with symbol Pb (from Latin: plumbum) and atomic number 82.  Lead is a soft and malleable metal.  It is considered one of the heavy metals.  Lead is used in building construction, lead-acid batteries, bullets, weights, as part of solders, pewters, fusible alloys, and as a radiation shield.

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What lead level is considered elevated in adults?

Lead levels in the blood are measured in micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL).

  • At levels above 80 µg/dL, serious, permanent health damage may occur (extremely dangerous).
  • Between 40 and 80 µg/dL, serious health damage may be occurring, even if there are no symptoms (seriously elevated).
  • Between 25 and 40 µg/dL, regular exposure is occurring. There is some evidence of potential physiologic problems (elevated).
  • Between 10 and 25 µg/dL, lead is building up in the body and some exposure is occurring.

 The typical level for U.S. adults is less than 10 µg/dL (mean = 3 µg/dL).

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What are the signs and symptoms of lead poisoning?

“Lead poisoning" or "lead intoxication" can be defined as exposure to high levels of lead typically associated with severe health effects.  The amount of lead in the body and the tissue as well as the time course of exposure determines the toxicity and the signs and symptoms exhibited by an individual. In regards to the time of exposure, lead poisoning can be classified into acute lead poisoning (from intense exposure of short duration) or chronic lead poisoning (from repeat low-level exposure over a prolonged time period).

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Acute Poisoning signs and symptoms

  • Pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Paraesthesia (sensation of "pins" and "needles")
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea,
  • Constipation
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Symptoms associated with encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) (rare)
  • Lead's effects on the mouth include astringency and a metallic taste.
  • Absorption of large amounts of lead over a short time can cause shock (insufficient fluid in the circulatory system) due to loss of water from the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Hemolysis (the rupture of red blood cells) due to acute poisoning can cause anemia and hemoglobin in the urine.
  • Damage to kidneys can cause changes in urination (e.g., decreased urine output)

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Chronic Poisoning signs and symptoms

Although chronic poisoning usually presents with symptoms affecting multiple systems, it is associated with three main types of symptoms: gastrointestinal, neuromuscular, and neurological.  Central nervous system and neuromuscular symptoms usually result from intense exposure, while gastrointestinal symptoms usually result from exposure over longer periods of time.  Signs of chronic exposure include:

  • Loss of short-term memory or concentration
  • Depression
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of coordination
  • Numbness and tingling in the extremities
  • Fatigue
  • Problems with sleep
  • Headache
  • Stupor
  • Slurred speech
  • Anemia
  • "Lead hue" of the skin with pallor
  • A blue line along the gum, with bluish black edging to the teeth, known as burton line
  • High blood pressure
  • Declines in mental functioning
  • Memory loss
  • Mood disorders
  • Reduced sperm count, abnormal sperm
  • Miscarriage or premature birth in pregnant women

More signs and symptoms of lead poisoning can be found here.

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How do you test for lead poisoning?

Health care providers usually use a simple blood test to detect lead poisoning.  A small blood sample is taken from a finger prick or from a vein.  Lead levels in the blood are measured in micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL).  An unsafe level is 10 µg/dL or higher.  

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What are some sources of lead exposure?

Occupational

  • Construction
  • Steel welding
  • Bridge reconstruction
  • Firing range instructing and cleaning
  • Painting
  • Remodeling and refinishing
  • Foundry work
  • Scrap metal recycling
  • Auto repair
  • Cable splicing

Hobbies

  • Casting bullets or fishing sinkers
  • Home remodeling
  • Target shooting at firing ranges
  • Lead soldering
  • Auto repair
  • Stained glass making
  • Glazed pottery making

Substance Use

  • Some folk remedies
  • Some "health foods"
  • Moonshine whiskey
  • Ceramicware

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How can you reduce exposure to lead?

  • Wash your hands and face before you eat or drink.
  • Eat or drink only in areas free of lead dust and fumes.
  • Wear a clean, properly fitted respirator with HEPA filter in all areas that have lead dust or fumes.  Shave to get the best fit.
  • Change into different clothes and shoes before engaging in work with lead.  Keep regular clothes and shoes in a clean place.
  • After working with lead, shower before going home.
  • Wash clothes separately from the rest of your family's laundry.

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How is lead poisoning treated?

The main method of treating lead poisoning is to remove the source of lead and chelation therapy for people with significantly high blood levels or who have symptoms of poisoning.  Chelation therapy is the administration of chelating agents to remove heavy metals from the body.  Chelation therapy has a long history of use in clinical toxicology.  For the most common forms of heavy metal intoxication—those involving lead, arsenic or mercury— a number of chelating agents are available.  

More information on recommendations for medical management of adult lead exposure here.

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Additional Resources

For more information on adult lead poisoning:

Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA)

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