Humans have been using lead in various products for over eight thousand years and its surprising to realize that we have known that lead is dangerous and should not be taken lightly since at least 150 BC. Its effect on the human body was earliest seen by famed Greek physician Nicander of Colophon. Nicander even went as far as to describe the metal as ‘deadly’ and wrote extensively on the crippling effects it has on the human body. To quote the occupation safety and health research institute: “lead poisoning is one of the earliest identified and most known occupational diseases. Its acute effects have been recognized from antiquity.” So, what exactly does lead poisoning do to the body?
Depending on how much substance gets into your body, it can cause everything from constipation to a permanent reduction in your IQ and mental ability. It can also potentially fundamentally change a given person’s personality, causing them to be irritable and suffer from erratic mood swings and fatigue without warning. It can also cause a reduction in sperm count and infertility as well as stunted growth (in children), miscarriages, and a whole slew of other terrifying symptoms.
While research is still going into the full effects and mechanisms involved in lead poisoning, what we do know is that a lot of the damage is because other important things like zinc, calcium, and iron in the body can ultimately get replaced by lead in many key biochemical reactions (if lead is present). Unlike these other metals though, while lead is happy to bind and interact with various critical enzymes, the result is not the normal reaction that you need. For example, when calcium, as noted in the paper on the Mechanisms of Lead Neurotoxicity, lead has a nasty habit of being able to mimic, or in some cases straight up inhibit the actions of calcium in a natural biological reaction that takes place within the human body, inhibiting neurological functions, among other things.
Lead can also damage DNA, as well as your cell membranes, the latter of which, combined with the fact that it also interferes with heme synthesis, can result in anemia among a host of other problems. It can also interfere with the ability of your body to synthesize vitamin D, which comes with yet another host of its own problems. It also causes multiple different problems with your immune system, interferes with the metabolism of bones and teeth, can cause abnormal calcium buildup within the cells, and the list goes on.
Lead can easily find its way into almost any part of your body once its introduced. Unlike many other poisons, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention lead is so toxic to humans that “no safe blood lead level has been identified.”
So, to summarize, lead is bad for you because, though lead has no useful function in your body it is happy to jump in, interact with a series of enzymes, and fails terribly at giving the reactions that are needed for normal body function. But what it lacks in result, it makes up for in staying power.
The half-life of lead in the human body is quite long – weeks in your blood, months in your soft tissues, and years in your bones (and by years we mean up to two to three decades). You can find the lead levels in your body by doing a simple blood test.
Exposure to lead particularly in childhood is still of key concern to health care providers and public health officials worldwide. Lead exposure is dangerous to children’s developing brains and can result in reduced attention span, impaired learning ability, and increased risk of behavioral problems. According to the World Health Organization there are approximately 240 million people that are overexposed to lead.
But lead in paint is still permitted in multiple countries. It is not only dangerous when applied but also over time when it is decaying. Action is still needed in more than 50% of countries so we can protect our health and the health of our children. The most effective way to remove lead poisoning from paint is through regulation.
A new report out in 2019 said a few popular fruit juices may contain heavy metal contaminants. Consumer reports assessed 45 different packaged juices for heavy metals like lead and various other harmful metals. It found measurable levels in every product. Long-term exposure to these can cause serious health risks like kidney disease and certain types of cancer. More than 80% of parents with children three years old and younger give their kids fruit juices.
In 2007 China demanded a huge product recall in import bans placed by the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand when they began realizing certain products were not safe. Products shipped from China like Marvel toys recalled 175,000 dolls that contained excessive amounts of lead paint that are known to damage brain cells, especially in children. An estimated 32% of all toys China exported contained lead. Toys like Hot Wheels had deadly poison known as arsenic. The most likely reason for this is that heavy metals are much cheaper and using any other substance would push their costs up.
Another one of the biggest noted recalls can be seen in India in 2007. Packets of the popular Maggie noodles were recalled from several cities in Uttar Pradesh after that were found to have potentially harmful ingredients in them. Study of various samples revealed seven times the permissible limit of lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG). nestle took steps to destroy 38,550 Tonnes of the 2-minute Maggi noodles which comes to approximately 540 million packets.