Lead

Below are a few questions we often here about lead poisoning…

What are the primary sources of lead exposure in humans?

A: Nationally, the primary source of lead exposure is lead paint. The two primary lead exposure routes for humans are inhalation and ingestion. Lead from airborne sources has been reduced since the phase out and elimination of lead additives in gasoline. Lead is also found in urban areas with older homes containing leaded paint which is also a source of soil contamination. Once lead enters the soil it adheres to the soil particles. Soil containing lead may also be blown by the wind, exposing people to lead containing dust. Movement of lead into groundwater is unlikely unless the water is acidic; a common situation in acid mine drainage areas. Sources of lead in surface water or sediment include deposits of lead-containing dust from the atmosphere, waste water from industries that handle lead (iron and steel and lead producers), urban runoff, and mining piles. Foods such as fruits, vegetables, meats, grains, seafood, soft drinks, and wine may contain lead. Cigarette smoke also contains small amounts of lead. Lead gets into food from water during cooking and into foods and beverages from dust that contains lead falling onto food during processing. The amount of lead found in canned food (lead solder joints) decreased 87% between 1980-88.
Levels of lead may build up in plants and animals in areas where air, water, or soil are contaminated. If animals eat contaminated plants or animals, most of the lead they eat will pass through their bodies. In general, very little lead is found in the groundwater or surface waters sources of drinking water (lakes, rivers, streams). Groundwater that is acidic may cause lead found in pipes, leaded solder, and brass faucets to enter water. Public water systems are required to treat water to make it less corrosive; this may include decreasing the acidity of the water.

Q: How does lead get into my drinking water?
A: Although sometimes found in natural deposits near drinking water sources, lead contamination generally occurs from the corrosion of lead pipes either between the water main and a customer’s home (lead service lines) or in a home or building’s plumbing system. Even in homes not served by a lead service line, corrosive water may cause lead to leach from lead pipes, lead solder, and brass fixtures.
Q: How much lead is harmful?
A: Blood lead levels of 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (mcg/dL) or greater are considered harmful. This level has been associated with decreased intelligence, behavior problems, reduced physical stature and growth, and impaired hearing. A child is estimated to lose 2 IQ points for each 10-mcg/dL increase lead in blood lead concentrations. A variety of intervention actions are taken at various thresholds above 10 mcg/dL. Pregnant women and women who are nursing are also at risk from lead exposure. Fetuses have been shown to receive lead from their mothers and nursing mothers can pass lead through their breast milk. In both cases, the unborn and young children are taking in levels of lead that have more of an impact due to their smaller size. It should be noted that local and state health departments recommend that children be routinely screened for lead at 9 months and again at 24 months.
Q: Does a high level of lead in tap water cause health effects?
A: High levels of lead in tap water can cause adverse health effects because the lead may enter the bloodstream and cause an elevated blood lead level. Most studies show that exposure to lead-contaminated water alone would not be likely to elevate blood lead levels in most adults, even with exposure to water with lead content close to the EPA “Action Level” of 15 ppb. Risk will vary depending upon the individual, the circumstances, and the amount of water consumed. For example, infants who drink formula prepared with lead contaminated water are considered to be at higher risk because of the large volume of water they consume relative to their body size.
Q: Are some people more at risk than others from lead in drinking water?
A: Yes. Children under the age of 6, pregnant women, and nursing mothers are considered to be most at risk. Children because of their smaller body size and pregnant and breast feeding mothers because of leads ability to pass through the placenta and through breast milk to the child. If you fall into one of these categories and are concerned, contact your local health department or physician.

sources: Water Magazine, Water Technology Magazine

More on the harmful effects of lead on our bodies to come…
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