Lead Poisoning in Adults

Symbol for the chemical element lead

Conversations about lead poisoning tend to revolve around children. This is with good reason, since children’s developing bodies are more susceptible to damage and the damage done may be significantly more severe. The focus on lead’s potential to harm children, however, does not mean adults are impervious to its effects.

Lead poisoning may be difficult to detect in people of any age. Symptoms may not present themselves until the level of lead in the blood is extremely high. Further complicating the diagnosis is that lead poisoning symptoms in adults may easily be contributed to other conditions. These symptoms may include:

  • Elevated blood pressure

  • Pain in the abdomen

  • Constipation

  • Painful joints

  • Muscle pain

  • Headaches

  • Fatigue

  • Impaired concentration or memory loss

  • Hearing loss

  • Seizures

  • Anemia

  • Depressive disorders

  • Neuropathy, or nerve damage causing pain, numbness, or tingling, primarily in extremities

  • Infertility or reproductive problems, such as low sperm count or miscarriage

The first step when a person of any age group is diagnosed with elevated blood lead levels is to identify the source of exposure and take actions to reduce the risk of continued exposure. This may require moving out of an older home during renovations or installing water filters. In minor cases, preventing further exposure may be sufficient for treating the problem. A number of factors, including lead levels in the blood, severity of symptoms, and the nature of the exposure help the patient and medical team to determine if medical treatment is necessary. Chelation therapy may be recommended for serious cases. Chelation therapy, an outpatient procedure, involves a synthetic substance, ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (better known by its easy-to-pronounce abbreviation of EDTA), is injected into the patient’s bloodstream, where it binds with heavy metals, including lead, and removes the poisonous metals from the body. Chelation therapy is proven effective as treatment for lead poisoning, but is regarded as controversial for all other potential uses.

In many cases, lead exposure may be reduced by simple precautions. Washing hands before eating, keeping hard surfaces in your home free of dust, and ensuring any home renovations are done professionally and safely. Do not attempt to remove lead-based paint using a sander or an open-flame torch. Regardless of method, utilize personal protective equipment and protective clothing if doing your own renovations. Contaminated water may be harder to cope with. Boiling lead contaminated water does not remove lead, but approved water filters may. Flushing cold water through pipes prior to use may lower the amount of lead coming out of the tap. If water has not been run through a particular faucet for more than six hours, run cold water through the faucet until the water starts running as cold as it can get. This may take anywhere from about five seconds to about two minutes. If you suspect your drinking water may be contaminated by lead, please visit www.epa.gov for information about water testing in your area.

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