(Note: this is the third entry in my series of posts about the personal pollution that simply living in the modern world has left inside my body. If you're just joining this conversation about my "body burden", you can find my first two posts, which explain what this is all about, here and here.)
For thousands of years, lead has been one of humanity's favorite metals. It's easy to find and refine, and simple to work with. You can bend and mold it with little effort and the results will resist corrosion, block radiation, shield electromagnetic fields, and perform a host of other feats. That's why this heavy metal once was in nearly everything -- from paint to plumbing and gas to glass. And that's likely why it's inside me now.
My body burden test results tell me that there are 27.2 micrograms of lead in every liter of blood my body contains. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which helped me conduct these tests, this is a startlingly high amount -- only 18% of Americans have more lead in their bloodstreams than I do.
Although my lead level falls below the federal government's recommended childhood intervention threshold of 100 micrograms per liter of blood (no threshold exists for adults), it's still extremely worrisome because even small amounts of lead can be dangerous.
Lead can affect almost any organ or system, but it's the nervous system that bears the brunt of the havoc it wreaks. Lead exposure can damage nerve connections and cause brain disorders, decreased mental performance, and reduced cognitive capacity. It can create behavioral problems and learning disabilities. It can cause joint weakness, increase blood pressure, and trigger anemia. High levels can cripple our kidneys, poison our blood, and even kill outright.
Lead is also a potent reproductive threat. It can harm developing fetuses and cause miscarriage. It can delay puberty and damage the testes. Experts whose opinions I trust say there's really no level at which lead doesn't cause some amount of harm. The only truly safe amount of lead to have in your body is no lead at all.
Though my own levels are alarming, lead levels in general are a lot lower than they used to be. The tide turned around 1980 when the removal of lead from paint and gasoline, two of the most common modern sources for this toxin, really started to have an impact. While the doctors can't say for sure, this may be why I have such high levels: Exposures that occurred earlier in my life are still with me. As the EWG explains, on average we excrete about half of any lead that enters our bodies after approximately 25 years. So if I ingested, say, 100 micrograms of lead when I was 25, I'd still have 50 of those micrograms left inside me on my 50th birthday.
This makes lead's impacts on our health cumulative. The lead we ingest today is added to the lead we ingested yesterday, and most of this will be added to whatever we're exposed to tomorrow. All of which begs an important question: where is all this lead coming from if lead paint and gasoline have been banned?
The short answer is that it's probably still coming from those same places. Any home painted before 1978 most likely has some lead paint in it. As this paint chips and decays into dust over time, the lead it contains enters the environment and our bodies. Since lead is an element, it can't and won't decay into something less harmful. It can only move around from one place to another. All the lead added to gasoline and emitted from tailpipes for decades simply settled into our soil and waterways where it continues to haunt our health.
There are other ways we're exposed to lead. The lead solder once used to connect plumbing joints is a major source. Leaded crystal and lead-glazed pottery can also introduce lead into our homes. You'll find lead in certain kinds of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), especially PVC used in window blinds and electric cords like those on holiday light strands. Artificial turf can create lead contamination as it degrades. Even some herbal remedies and folk medicines can contain lead. Recently certain types of candy from Mexico have been found to be contaminated by lead. It's also been identified in some costume and toy jewelry, and in some imported toys, which can contain lead paint from countries that haven't banned it.
The experts tell me there's not much I can do about the lead I've already absorbed. What's now important for me and for all of us to do is to avoid future exposure to make sure that our current blood lead levels, whatever they may be, are as high as they'll ever get. We can do that by having our water tested for lead and filtering it if any is found. In older homes, we can keep our paint in good condition by repairing chipped surfaces. We can also use test kits to check suspect items for the presence of lead. (Store-bought swab kits can tell us if lead is present but not how much lead is involved. Since my attitude is that any lead is too much, that's enough for me.)
Steps like these can keep our body burdens of this dangerous metal to a hopeful minimum. But I think the real lesson to be learned in my test results is a precautionary one for the whole country. Because my blood is laden with lead that I likely encountered many years ago. The various (probably tiny) poisonings I experienced are all still with me to some extent. If this can happen with lead it can happen with other metals and with chemicals. And unless we change our ways, it will. We need to take strong regulatory steps based on the Precautionary Principle and make sure that we never again engage in the use of a material with even a small potential to cause serious, widespread, and often permanent harm. In the end, there's nothing anyone can really do about my body burden. But we can all work together to make sure that our children and their children never have to worry about such things ever again.