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If you keep up with the news in the United States, by now you have probably heard a great deal about the events surrounding the discovery of lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan.
Flint has been a city in decline for several decades. When auto plants closed and the businesses that served them closed, too, people began to leave. The people who stayed became so few that the city could not collect enough taxes to sustain itself, so the State of Michigan appointed an Emergency Manager to run the city. Among the decisions the state, and its governor made, was to save a few hundred thousand dollars by switching the city's water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. When this was done, water plant managers failed to steps to prevent the corrosion of old lead pipes, and the city's water supply became undrinkable, contaminated with lead, exposing between 6,000 and 12,000 children to lead poisoning.
Lead Is Especially Toxic to the Young
Lead poisoning isn't exactly a new problem. Archeologists believe that millions of people in Europe were poisoned by lead in fumes released by silver smelting in Athens over 2,500 years ago. Lead poisoning in adult lead miners and people who worked with lead has been recognized for centuries. Lead poisoning in children from household sources of lead, however, has only been recognized as a health issue since the 1880's, when childhood lead poisoning was first recognized as an illness by doctors in Australia.
In children, every organ in the body is affected by exposure to lead, but its greatest effects are in the brain. Lead interferes with the brain's ability to organize itself. Exposure even to small amounts of lead before birth, as an infant, or in early childhood cause lasting developmental problems, and lead that reaches the brains of children cannot be removed by methods that work for treating lead poisoning in adults, such as EDTA chelation.
When lead is eaten, drunk with contaminated water, or breathed in with fumes, it doesn't stay in the bloodstream very long. It attaches to red blood cells, but within 30 days, it diffuses into the kidneys, liver, bone marrow, and brain. That's why a simple blood test doesn't always reveal lead poisoning. Once lead gets into bone, it can stay there for decades, only to be released during pregnancy, menopause, or breastfeeding in women, and during periods of immobility in both sexes. When someone has to avoid activity, after breaking a bone, for instance, the bones release both calcium and heavy metal contamination. In this way, lead poisoning tends to show up years or decades after exposure at the worst possible time.
The symptoms of lead exposure in children are a lot like those of ADHD:
- Irritability, mood swings, and unexplained behavior patterns.
- Either hyperactivity or lethargy.
- Failure to meet developmental milestones (smiling, talking, crawling, walking, potty training) and failure to develop language.
In both children and adults, lead exposure can cause abdominal pain, loss of appetite, constipation, dizziness, headache, stupor, and coma. Men who have been exposed to lead may develop infertility and impotence; women who have been exposed to lead tend to have smaller babies or to suffer miscarriages. Very few adults die of lead poisoning, but adults also can experience mental changes after being exposed to the poison.