What Does Lead Exposure Actually Do to Your Body?

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If you consume any type of media, you’ve probably heard about the crisis in Flint, where lead has contaminated the tap water and President Obama has declared a state of emergency. What you might not know is what lead exposure actually does to the human body.

Let's get this out of the way first: “There is no safe level of lead exposure,” warns Dr. Aly Cohen, an autoimmune disease specialist and founder of The Smart Human, which gives tips to reduce expos ure to everyday chemicals and radiation. Here's why you really don't want this heavy metal landing in your municipal water supply:

In children, lead exposure is especially damaging to brain development

“Children’s brains are developing and growing, and lead is a toxin that will interfere with the development of the brain, in particular,” says Erik Olson, director of the health and environmental program at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), where he's also the senior strategic director of the food and agriculture program. “It also has other nervous system harms, but what we are worried about are the impacts of the brain development and how the child will behave and interact with the environment.”

According to Olson, lead exposure can affect behavior, learning ability, and IQ of kids in a very long-term way.

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It may cause violent crime

One of these long-term problems seems crazy at first glance, but has profound social consequences: the link between lead exposure and violent crime. Olson points to this correlation when discussing lead exposure in children. As recently as three decades ago, a lack of serious lead regulations meant children were exposed on a much larger scale than they are now. These children grew up with developmental disabilities, such as behavior imbalances, and were more likely to commit violent crimes as adults. 

Dr. Cohen concurs, and noting that the advent of unleaded gasoline as a major step forward. “[Lead] affects our brain in such a big way that there was a decline in aggressive behaviors after that phase out, which is very welldocumented.”

Lead collects in your bones, and can stay in your body for years

It's not just the brain -- lead can also collect in the bones and be released over time with stress or during pregnancy.

“Lead can stay in the system basically throughout your life and be remobilized and create problems later,” adds Olson. “There really are profound long-term effects that are fairly difficult to trace to the lead itself,” which makes lead all the more insidious, since the results of exposure can't always be isolated.

Exposure can be asymptomatic for a long time

Because of this problem of isolating lead's effects, it can appear as though there are no real symptoms at all for a very long time. In adults, lead can affect blood pressure, kidneys, and gastrointestinal system, but those really don’t present themselves unless there's a high level of exposure. 

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, some of the adverse effects remain unknown, but it can cause a wide swath of nasty, but vague symptoms that include everything from fatigue to impotence. Cardiovascular issues, such as hypertension, can also be a symptom, though many of these in adults also depend on other factors such as weight, age, and diet. Basically, lead is a problem for every single one of your organs, so any issue you already have isn't going to be helped by lead exposure.  

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You've almost certainly been exposed to lead

From lead-based paints that can be found in houses built before 1977, to tobacco smoke and the artificial turf on soccer fields, lead is in more products and places than you would imagine.

What's a person to do in a lead-contaminated world? For starters, it's especially important to limit exposure in children. Dr. Cohen urges parents to avoid giving their kids costume jewelry, and to buy toys made in the United States within the last five years under strict regulations, versus getting old hand-me-down toys out of the garage. “Though toys and jewelry are regulated in the United States, they aren’t regulated in other countries,” she adds. “This means lead can be found in things such as costume jewelry that you find at the dollar store as it is often manufactured outside of the country.”

“As adults go, we are most worried about pregnant women,” Olson stresses. “The lead can cross the placenta and then enter the developing fetus, ultimately affecting their brain.”

There are ways for you to decrease lead exposure

Luckily, you do have some control in this situation. Dr. Cohen explains that being proactive can happen through avoiding exposure which is the number one way to protect yourself.

In Flint, of course, people can only drink bottled water, and can’t improve the water supply coming out of their tap. Most people don’t experience exposure on that level, but you can make sure your house -- if built before 1977, when paint regulations changed -- is free of lead-based paint, engage in more frequent dusting, and buy a water filter that specifically eliminates lead. Dr. Cohen suggests visiting the Environmental Working Group for buying guides.

Olson emphasizes that while the costs of the Flint crisis are going to be astronomical, the human element is even more sobering. “Lead exposure is truly troubling to society and the cost in dollar and cents are enormous. However, the costs to families and kids are incalculable.”

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Ashley Lauretta is a freelance journalist and editor and is following Dr. Cohen's advice for ridding her home of lead. For updates on that process and more, follow her at @ashley_lauretta.