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Curr Probl Pediatr. 1988 Dec;18(12):697-744.

The persistent threat of lead: medical and sociological issues.

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  • 1University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, Pennsylvania.


Lead exposure is an ancient malady. Its history serves as a useful paradigm through which to understand many other pollutants that our technological society has inserted into the human environment and may guide preventive steps for other agents. Lead poisoning was first recognized in workers exposed to high doses. The discovery of childhood toxicity occurred a century ago in Australia, when children with striking symptoms of paralysis, ophthalmoplegia, or meningitis were found to be highly lead exposed. Encephalopathy generally occurs at blood lead levels of 80 micrograms/dL or more, but unequivocal brain damage has been demonstrated at doses well below this level. At lower doses, the neurocognitive effects of lead are expressed as diminished psychometric intelligence, attention deficits, conduct problems, alterations in the electroencephalogram, school failure, and increased referral rates for special needs. Careful epidemiologic studies, which have controlled for the important confounders, have set the effect level at 10-15 micrograms/dL. Elegant animal studies in which confounding is not an issue have confirmed these findings. Although blood lead levels in the population have dropped over time for a number of reasons, there are some 3-4 million American children with blood lead levels of more than 15 micrograms/dL. Biochemical and functional changes have been demonstrated in the heme biosynthetic pathway and in the renal, cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, and nervous systems. The threshold for effect depends on the sensitivity of the methods used. A no-effect level has not been found. Further, this is not a disease of the poor alone. But the poor are exposed to much more lead than are the more economically favored. Deficiencies in body calcium, zinc, iron, and protein stores are associated with increased uptake. Optimizing nutrition enhances the resistance to lead. All children should be screened for lead at regular intervals, especially those with anemia, growth failure, and developmental or behavioral problems. Treatment protocols are well worked out, but chelation is only part of the therapy. Controlling the environment, strengthening the family's supports, enhancing nutrition, and offering remedial education are essential to a successful therapeutic outcome. Lead control has involved a continuing struggle between vested economic interests and regulatory agencies. In one area, the control of airbone lead, science, and public health have prevailed. In the past decade, the amount of alkyl lead consumed in gasoline additives has been reduced by 99%. Body lead burdens have dropped in close correspondence.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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