Recently, a series of articles was published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about an industrial plant in the north Twin Cities area that makes battery terminals for most cars in the U.S. and fishing sinkers.
Both of their products are made of lead. The plant was closed temporarily because workers were bringing home lead dust on their clothes. There, the children absorbed it and were found to have high blood lead levels.
Admittedly, discussing anything about lead is a “heavy” topic. It highlights the continuing medical problems that lead absorption can cause. The scandal of the unnecessary lead contamination of the water supply in Flint, Michigan, and the revelation of some Canadian cities’ water supplies being more highly contaminated than Flint’s, are current stories as well.
Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in a body over months or years.
Even small amounts can produce problems. The current expert medical opinion is that there is no safe lead level. Initially, lead poisoning can be tricky to detect. You can carry high lead levels and appear healthy. Often, symptoms and signs don’t show up until hazardous amounts accumulate.
So, what are the detrimental effects of lead on biological systems, mainly human, but not exclusively? High lead levels can severely affect mental and physical development, causing brain damage and behavioral problems. At very high levels, it can be fatal.
There are differences according to age and development. Children younger than 6 years old are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning because of their developing brains and nervous systems.
In kids, symptoms and signs may include developmental delay, learning difficulties, irritability, appetite loss, weight loss (bad diet plan), sluggishness and fatigue, abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation, hearing loss, seizures, and an odd compulsive eating of things not food, like paint chips or dirt (labeled pica). Babies exposed before birth in utero may be born prematurely, have low birth weight and slowed growth.
In adults, lead poisoning may bring on high blood pressure, joint and muscle, pain, difficulties with memory or concentration, headache, mood disorders, reduced sperm count and abnormal sperm (guys, of course), and in pregnant women, miscarriage, stillbirth or premature birth. Long-term exposure or high amounts can cause kidney disease and failure.
Routes of absorption can be ingestion, inhalation or absorption through skin, a far less likely path.
There can be many sources of exposure. Lead is a metal in the earth’s crust, mainly found in the form of the sulfide or galena, from which it is extracted.
Human activity such as mining, smelting, burning fossil fuels, manufacturing, or using leaded gasoline exhausts that spray it into the surrounding roadway dirt have made it more widespread in the environment.
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Lead-based paints were banned after 1978, but old paint in and on structures is a continued source of contamination.
Fuel containing lead has been banned for some time for general vehicle on-road use. But it is still sold for racing cars, farm equipment, marine engines, and flying aircraft.
Lead pipes in municipal water systems like Flint and brass plumbing fixtures soldered with lead can release lead particles into tap water. Lead solder in food cans, banned in the U.S., is still used in some countries, and leaches into the food.
Other possible sources of lead contamination are soil, household dust, pottery glazes, toys produced abroad, cosmetics from elsewhere, herbal or folk remedies from India or China, two traditional Hispanic medicines, greta or azarcon, and Mexican candy made with tamarind.
Occupations also can be sources in jobs like auto repair, pipefitting, painting, construction, and our poster child, battery manufacturing.
The history of lead has been intertwined with humans since at least 7,000-6,500 BCE.
Metallic lead beads have been found from this time period in Asia Minor. This may represent the first example of metal smelting or heating to extract a metal. And there are claims that the lead used for water pipes and in pottery used for food, water, and wine, contributed to Rome’s downfall.
Treatment is to prevent or reduce exposure.
There are a few medicines either taken by mouth or given intravenously that try to bind to lead, if it is not already bound to tissues like bone, and excrete it via kidneys.
The best approach is prevention. That’s what the battery/sinker plant is supposed to do with better cleaning techniques. The word for lead in Latin is plumbum.
Hence, all the terms like plumber (someone who works with lead pipes), plumb line (because the weight on the string to check straightness is made of lead) etc. We’ll stop our “leaden” discussion before you go plumb crazy.