Lead: The heavy metal not being taken lightly in Michigan


The Flint Water Crisis has been and continues to be the main story in Michigan and across the United States. Lead, and its heavy metal counterparts mercury, cadmium, and arsenic, appears on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of 10 chemicals of major public health concerns.

While Michigan Urgent Care clinics do not test for blood lead poisoning, we feel it important to share information about lead, its health effects, and what you can do to prevent lead poisoning and educate others.

What is lead?

Lead is a naturally occurring element found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. While it has some beneficial uses, it can be toxic to humans and animals causing negative health effects.

Lead can be found in the air, such as in workplaces that use or manufacturer lead-based products, soil, which could contaminate food, and drinking water.  It is important to note that lead rarely occurs naturally in water; it usually gets into the water from the delivery system. Lead pipes and/or lead solder are the main contributors to high lead levels in tap water.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) have set standards for the maximum acceptable lead levels that can be found in water, food, workplace air, and household paint.

What is lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning occurs when someone absorbs too much lead by breathing or swallowing a substance that contains the element.

How does lead get in the body?

There are three ways that lead can enter the body–inhalation, ingestion, or absorption.

Inhalation of lead occurs when someone breathes in lead particles. This usually happens when working in an environment where lead dust or fumes are present. Once the lead enters your lungs, it is absorbed into your bloodstream.

Lead entering the body through ingestion is absorbed into the body about 6 times faster than inhalation. Consumption of lead usually occurs when someone does not properly wash their hands after handling lead or substances containing lead, and then puts their hands in their mouth. Up until 1978, lead was used in paint, which led to many children to be lead poisoned through ingesting paint chips. Some older homes or toys still have lead paint. Other items that contain lead are bullets, curtain weights, fishing sinkers, and pipes (which can contaminate water).

For water, the E.P.A. does not require action until levels reach 15 parts per billion, but public health scientists say there is no safe level for lead in water (New York Times, “Events that led to Flint’s Water Crisis”.)

Lastly, lead can enter the body through absorption. Although, the rate of this is much slower than inhalation or ingestion. Lead absorption takes place when lead dust rests on skin, and then enters the pores. When someone sweats, then the lead can enter the body through the pores. The bigger concern is when the pore reopens on the surface of the skin and then is picked up or ingested by family and friends.

What does lead do inside the body?

Lead causes different symptoms among children and adults. Exposure to lead in children can result in lower IQ levels, smaller size compared to other children the same age, behavior and learning deficits, lack of energy, and decreased appetite. In adults lead causes changes in behavior, memory loss, trouble thinking clearly, weakness, muscle problems, and headaches.

Can lead be removed from the body?

Once a person is diagnosed with lead poisoning through a blood test, the source of the lead should be removed by a professional. This means checking old paint and other areas of the home or workplace, and then removing it. From there, the diagnosed person should practice good nutrition that contains high levels of iron and other vitamins/minerals that are known to reduce lead levels. If removing the lead source and practicing good nutrition fails to work then chelation therapy may be recommended. However, damage caused by lead poisoning is not reversible.

What can I do?

Know your home’s age! If you live in an older home (pre-1978), the paint should be tested, and then hire professionals to remove any lead-based paint found. Also, avoid older toys and household items that may be painted with lead-based paint.

Test drinking water supply. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has answers to frequently asked questions about testing drinking water for homeowners. As mentioned previously in this article, lead rarely occurs naturally in water. Lead contamination in water most often occurs from the element leaching from water lines into the water supply.

Homeowners should contact their Local Health Department for a recommendation of what to have their water tested for.  EPA recommends that private wells be tested for coliforms (bacteria) and nitrate/nitrite at a minimum. Arsenic, a heavy metal found in groundwater that can cause irreversible health conditions, may also be recommended for testing by local health departments. Homeowners with older home built before the 1990s should also consider testing their water for lead since lead solder may have been used to join pipes together.

Most importantly, if you believe you or your children have been exposed to lead see a health care professional immediately! The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also has information about blood lead testing.