Why is everyone so worried about lead? You’re told to think twice about homes built before 1978 because they could have lead-based paint. You hear lead is a potential workplace hazard. And you know that somehow it can end up in your blood, even though people mostly seem concerned about inhaling it. What exactly will lead do to your body, and how can you avoid it? We break it all down in this episode of The Infographics Show, How Scared Should We be of Lead?
First, why it’s scary. Lead is worrisome because it’s invisible and odorless. There’s no way to know if you’re inhaling it. You may also ingest it from dust, water delivered through lead-contaminated pipes, or through food cooked or stored on lead-containing surfaces. Its effects take time to accumulate. By the time you have symptoms that prompt testing, you’ve likely already amassed dangerous levels of lead in your bones and teeth, where lead is stored.
Sadly, it can damage every organ in your body, including your brain.
It is especially harmful to young children not only because they are in critical growth and developmental phases throughout childhood, but because their systems absorb more than an adult’s body would, allowing formative damage to their brains and nervous systems, producing learning differences, emotional challenges, and compromised motor skills.
And lead has a long history of damaging human bodies, but the U.S. government only recently got on the ball in banning it. Lead-based paint was only outlawed in 1978. Then it took another 14 years for Congress to pass a law forcing home sellers and landlords to disclose potential lead toxicity to buyers and renters.
In April 2017, the medical journal Pediatrics published an article on insufficient testing on children, with CNN sharing the warning.
Last year in Flint, Michigan’s governor declared a state of emergency and sent in the National Guard when high levels of lead were discovered in water.
How did lead get to be everywhere and why does it seem to have saturated our environment?
Lead first appeared to humankind as early as 4,000 B.C.
It was prevalent during the Roman Empire, from about 100 B.C. to 400 A.D. You know that expression “Do as the Romans do.”? Actually, don’t. Like, ever. Do not ever do that at all. At least not when it comes to assigning status to precious metals, like silver for jewelry or trading commodity.
And don’t use it to make a syrup to add to your wine. Because with your sweet bling and booze, you’ll get lead deposits that will damage your otherwise advanced and glorious civilization, affecting mental and emotional intelligence, physical health, and fertility. Historians have even debated whether lead was responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire.
But how did lead get into modern life? It was the advent of the gasoline car. Fun fact: Long before the battle featured in the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, the lore of Tesla, and the big EV debate, electric vehicles were the norm.
It was loud, greasy gasoline cars that weren’t entirely palatable. But range anxiety – how long you can go on a charge – existed even back then, and modern infrastructure allowed driving longer distances.
Chemists learned you could boost auto fuel with something called tetraethyllead, or more simply, lead. Gas-powered cars would perform better while going longer distances, leaving behind a veil of potential toxicity wherever they traveled when they exploded in popularity in the 1920s.
Emissions tests came years later and a ban on leaded fuel yet years after that, in the early 1990s in North America, at about the same time Congress required disclosure of lead hazard in homes. If you’re older than 30, you probably remember being at the gas station with your parents and seeing the prices for leaded and unleaded fuel.
Today, leaded fuel is outlawed in U.S. and Europe. It is still legal in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq, Myanmar, North Korea, Serbia, and Yemen. A form of lead is also used in some jet fuels.
But like many modern-day public health fears, there’s a section of the population that calls lead fear an unfounded panic. Among the skeptics are those who say that lead is not as much of a danger to physical health, and those that take issue with the attempt to link childhood exposure to adult behavior problems including violent crime.
Part of the reason for the doubt is the time between cause and effect: lead accumulates over time, with many environmental factors present in the meantime. And for all of the lead in our atmosphere, in our towns, in our homes, and in our workplaces, with the U.S. producing ranking third for secondary lead production – that’s the potentially hazardous kind – in the world behind China and Australia, not everyone suffers neurological effects or damaged organs.
So, what can you do to assess your exposure?
Geographically, your children could be at most risk if you live in the United States’ South. A blood test will reveal lead levels in your child’s body.
Learn when your home was built, and if it was before 1978, then you should test for lead. If you plan on doing renovations in an older home, ensure that your contractor is approved through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. The company should have a designation as a Lead Safe Certified Firm.
You should also check with your local water agency for lead disclosures.
At the workplace, you’re likely to be exposed if you’re employed in general industry, shipyards, or construction. For that reason, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires U.S. employers to provide protective gear to employees in those fields. Even with protective equipment, you should take precaution and get tested.
Eyebrow-raising symptoms for lead-exposed workers include mood changes, headache, decreased motor skills and reaction time, dizziness, fatigue, and cognitive impairment/forgetfulness.
So how exactly should you live?
Without panicking about what’s lurking in your environment, simply be more mindful. While you’re at it, watch out for other environmental health and other toxins in your food. That includes radon – a naturally occurring chemical that is not harmful at low levels but can be concentrated in some soils under homes – and BPA.
BPA is bisphenol A, an industrial chemical in some plastic containers, like soda bottles and those clear plastic tubs and boxes for prepared foods at the grocery store. BPA can get into your food, and damage the brain.
Look for labels that state a container is BPA-free to avoid ingesting any amount of this chemical.
In closing, look out, but not too much. Don’t wring your hands over hidden danger all day. If in doubt, seek testing. Many local public agencies in the United States provide environmental health information and testing at no cost. Fortunately, many people live healthy lives in an industrialized world.
Do you think there’s a chance you’re being poisoned by lead right now? Let us know in the comments. If you’re interested in other health videos, check out Vegans vs Meat Eaters by tapping here. Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. Also, please consider heading over to our Patraon; we are currently raising money to hire more writers so that we can continue bringing you this bi-weekly show!