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Regulatory and Personal Solutions for Reducing Lead Exposure

In the previous Eco-Logical, we talked about how we can be exposed to lead. So, we will now take a break from our lead-crystal glassful of elderberry ripple and slur out a few words about the effects that lead can have on you.

The US EPA describes lead as persistent in the environment (meaning it doesn't decompose or get bound quickly) and bioaccumulative (meaning that living things store it in tissue). This makes lead particularly problematic. The scientific community measures lead contamination in humans in units of micrograms per deciliter (g/dL) of blood—which means about as much to us non-scientists as units of "karats per sploosh." But ignore the units—you'll get the gist of the info below just from the relative values of the numbers.

picture of doorways with peeling lead paint The EPA states that death can occur in children with blood lead levels greater than 125 g/dL. Brain and kidney damage have been reported at blood lead levels of 100 g/dL in adults and 80 g/dL in children. Other acute symptoms, such as gastrointestinal problems, may occur at levels of 60 g/dL in adults and children. Fortunately, acute lead exposure is an infrequent problem.

The greater risk to the general populace is from chronic exposure to lead. For adults, the EPA notes problems such anemia and neurological symptoms at levels down to 40 and 30 g/dL, respectively. For children, EPA notes neurotoxic effects and decreased IQ at levels as low as 10 g/dL. Independent long-term studies of lead levels in children have noted negative effects at even lower levels; for instance, an increase in blood lead levels from <1 g/dL to 10 g/dL was associated with a 7 point drop in IQ.

Over the decades, the lead industry has worked actively to thwart or discredit the investigation and documentation of the negative health effects of lead. They have sued lead researchers and launched campaigns to discredit them professionally. But given the mounting evidence of lead-associated health effects, we should encourage our governments to overcome industry resistance and pursue tighter regulations to further reduce our exposure to lead.

Beyond that, there are a few other things we regular folks should consider:

  • If you live in a dwelling built before 1978 (or are considering buying one), visit the EPA lead info page
  • Get your drinking water tested. There are many firms that can conduct tests for lead and other contaminants.
  • If you replace your lead-acid car battery yourself, be sure to find out how to dispose of it properly. (And no, "put it in the trash" is not the right answer!)

Remember, lead is a problem. Don't forget that it thwarted Superman's X-ray vision!

peeling lead paint

Back to Part 1

Publish date: 20-JAN-2004


Ancient Rome developed an extensive plumbing system, much of it employing lead pipes. They also used lead in cookware and dishes, and sometimes they even used it directly in food and drink as an ingredient or sweetener! Some historians suspect the odd behavior of some of Rome's emperors and aristocrats was due at least in part to lead poisoning, and that the lead problem ultimately was partly to blame for the fall of the Roman Empire.


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Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution

by Gerald E. Markowitz, David Rosner




Did the lead industry have evidence that lead was harmful but then still promote it as a safe, important part of "the good life" in 20th-century America? Did they use unethical tactics and threats to stifle the voices of researchers whose work suggested that lead was a hazard? Discover the truth about what's really been going on with lead and other industrial chemicals, in "Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution."

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"Children between ages one and three are at the greatest risk because of normal hand-to-mouth activity and the increase in mobility during their second and third years, which make lead hazards more accessible to them."

— President's Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children [2000]


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