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Lead Can Alter Personalities, Pose Lifelong Risks. It’s Still in America’s Water Pipes.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal Thursday to rid the country of all remaining lead pipes in the next ten years has brought renewed attention to the harmful health effects of lead in drinking water.

Among those dangers, a growing body of research suggests that years of lead exposure could impact a person’s personality.

One study from the University of Texas found childhood lead exposure was linked to being less agreeable and less considerate among other personality traits.

Researchers looked at 1.5 million U.S. and European participants between 20 and 30 and discovered residents who grew up in areas with higher levels of atmospheric lead were more likely to exhibit neurotic behaviors, even after accounting for socioeconomic status, according to the 2021 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s difficult to accurately capture an unbiased link between something as ambiguous as personality to lead exposure, but the data indicates an overall “damping down of an individual’s potential,” said Natalie Exum, an environmental health scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “What that’s indicating is the neurotoxic nature of lead – especially for children.”

Contaminated drinking waterLead water pipes still pose a health risk across America. The EPA wants to remove them all.

Other health impacts of lead exposure

Lead exposure can affect every tissue in the body, experts say.

The heavy metal inserts itself in cellular processes common to every single cell type involved in major bodily functions such as bone development, and organs such as the gastrointestinal system, kidneys and eyes, said Dr. Roopa Thakur, a pediatrician at the Cleveland Clinic. But lead’s biggest impact on children is on their neurodevelopment.

Exum said children’s blood-brain barrier, which protects the brain from harmful substances, isn’t fully developed until they’re about seven. Heavy metals can move around more easily in blood vessels and enter the brain.

This could cause damage to the brain and nervous system, slow growth and development, and trigger learning and behavior problems.

Lead poisoning is typically gradual, showing up long after a child may have been exposed, said Thakur, who also serves as medical director of the Lead-Free Ohio program, operated by the Ohio chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“The time when kids are actively ingesting or inhaling lead is usually when they’re in infancy, when they’re crawling around and picking up lead dust and ingesting it,” she said. “It’s later when they’re growing and developing that we see deficits or physical manifestations.”

The EPA says there’s no safe level of exposure to lead. Even a low level of lead in children’s blood is associated with delayed puberty, decreased hearing, impaired cognitive performance, and delayed postnatal growth, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Lead exposure is more harmful to children 6 and younger because their bodies are still developing. Young children are likelier to put contaminated objects into their mouths. But adults can also suffer health issues due to lead exposure, the EPA says, including:

  • Reproductive problems;
  • High blood pressure and hypertension;
  • Nerve disorders;
  • Memory and concentration problems;
  • Muscle and joint pain.

Lead poisoning symptoms

The CDC says lead exposure in children is often difficult to see because most people don’t show any obvious or immediate symptoms.

If a parent or guardian suspects a child was exposed to lead, the agency recommends talking to a doctor about getting a blood test, which is covered by public insurance and many private insurance companies.

While signs don’t generally appear until dangerous amounts of lead have accumulated, the Mayo Clinic says that some symptoms in children may include:

  • Developmental delay;
  • Learning difficulties;
  • Irritability;
  • Loss of appetite;
  • Weight loss;
  • Sluggishness and fatigue;
  • Abdominal pain;
  • Vomiting;
  • Constipation;
  • Hearing loss;
  • Seizures.

Newborns exposed to lead before birth could be born prematurely, have lower birth weight or exhibit slowed growth.

Is lead poisoning treatable?

There is no treatment for lead poisoning, Thakur said.

Once lead is deposited in the body’s cells and a patient begins to show symptoms, however, it’s important to take action, namely, to find and eliminate the source of lead, continue to monitor the child’s health and implement interventions, such as occupational speech therapy to ensure the child’s development is on track, she said.

Although the AAP does not recommend universal screening or blood lead level tests for all children, Thakur said early detection is key because there are treatments that can bring lead levels down in young children and are likely to mitigate lasting impacts.

Prevention is the best policy. The EPA’s new proposal would compel local utilities across the United States to dig up and replace about 9 million aging pipes. The agency estimates it could generate as much as tens of billions of dollars in annual economic benefits because there would be less cognitive impairment in children and fewer health disorders.

Source: USA Today