Lead poisoning is a medical condition in humans caused by increased levels of the heavy metal lead in the body. This 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 US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that a blood lead level of 10 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.
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 and shot, weights, as part of solders, pewters, fusible alloys, and as a radiation shield.
Lead levels in the blood are measured in micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL).
The typical level for U.S. adults is less than 10 µg/dL (mean = 3 µg/dL).
“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 period).
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. Signs of chronic exposure include:
More signs and symptoms of lead poisoning
Doctors 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.
The main purpose of treating lead poisoning is the removal of the source of lead, and for people with significantly high blood levels or who have symptoms of poisoning, chelation therapy. 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.
The ABLES program is a state-based surveillance program of laboratory-reported adult blood lead levels. The program objective is to build state capacity to initiate, expand, or improve adult blood lead surveillance programs which can accurately measure trends in adult blood lead levels and which can effectively intervene to prevent lead over-exposures.
More information about the ABLES Program
For more information on adult lead poisoning: