Even the Romans knew that lead was poisonous, and yet they so enjoyed its diverse everyday uses, they couldn’t stop using it. Roman aqueducts were made of lead, as well as utensils and wine vessels, and the upper crust of Roman society in particular consumed lead in vast amounts over time leading to illness, madness, and death — and probably contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. After their fall, lead continued to serve a variety of functions, including printing presses, alchemy (with hopes of turning lead into gold), and guns and gunpowder. In addition, lead was known to be extremely convenient for eliminating inconvenient relatives.
Lead continued to be important to the economies of modern times. By 1980, the United States was consuming about 1.3 million tons of lead per year according to a National Academy of Science report. Lead was used as a gasoline additive from the 1920s until the late 1970s when the Environmental Protection Agency finally phased it out. Lead has been used in paint and plumbing pipes, and homes built before the mid-1970s are likely still tainted. Today, lead content remains a concern with products and toys imported from other countries — lead poisoning is especially dangerous for children.
Why is lead so dangerous? The body has no use for it, and yet ingested (or inhaled in the form of lead dust), the body replaces other vital metals such as zinc, calcium, and iron with lead in biochemical reactions. It can then affect blood pressure (causing developmental delays in children and high blood pressure in adults), trigger anemia, and affect sperm production. Lead displaces calcium, adversely altering electrical impulses in the brain which diminishes cognitive and memory functions.
Lead poisoning can occur if a person is exposed to high levels of lead over a short period of time. Symptoms may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Memory loss
- Pain or tingling in hands or feet
Lead is listed by the EPA and other agencies as carcinogenic, and exposure has been linked to infertility, risk of heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure. Scientists are concerned that there is no safe level of lead exposure, especially for pregnant women and young children.
Surprisingly, lead is still prevalent in our society. From artists to battery manufacturers to miners and plumbers, lead exposure is a very real danger. Here are some tips to protect yourself if you work or live in an environment with lead:
- Do not eat, drink, or smoke in areas where lead is handled or processed.
- Use an effective lead removal product to clean your hands if you work with lead, such as stained glass solder. Standard soap and water is not enough to remove lead residues from your skin.
- Shower and change clothes and shoes after working around lead-based products.
- Work in areas that are well-ventilated.
- Talk with our doctor about workplace lead exposure if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant.
- Be diligent about the origin of children’s toys and their exposure to lead in their environment, especially if you live in an older home.