Lead poisoning occurs when lead accumulates in the body over time, often months or years. Even trace amounts of lead can be hazardous to one’s health. Children under the age of six are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can have serious consequences for their mental and physical development. Lead poisoning can be fatal at high concentrations.
The most common sources of lead poisoning in children are lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust in older buildings. Other sources of contamination include contaminated air, water, and soil. Adults who work with batteries, do home improvements, or work in auto repair shops may also be exposed to lead.
Over thousands of years, a team of researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) discovered a link between metal production rates and toxic lead exposure in humans. The researchers looked at human remains from a burial ground in central Italy that had been in use for about 12,000 years. As lead production increased around the world, so did the rate at which it was absorbed by people’s bodies over time, implying that humans have been breathing the dangerous substance for thousands of years.
A team of researchers have found a link between the rates of metal production and toxic lead exposure in humans over thousands of years.
Lead is a naturally occurring metal in the earth’s crust, but the human activity — mining, the use of fossil fuels, and manufacturing — has caused it to become more prevalent. Lead was also used in paint and gasoline in the past, and it is still used in batteries, solder, pipes, pottery, roofing materials, and some cosmetics today.
“This documentation of lead pollution throughout human history shows that, remarkably, much of the estimated dynamics in lead production are replicated in human exposure,” said Yigal Erel, professor at HU’s Institute of Earth Sciences and lead author of the study published this week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. “Thus, lead pollution in humans has closely followed their rates of lead production.”
“Simply put, the more lead we produce, the more likely it is that people will absorb it into their bodies,” he explained. “It has a very toxic effect.”
High levels of lead exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can cause anemia, weakness, and brain damage. High lead exposure can be fatal in the worst-case scenario. Lead can enter our bodies through our diet and even through air pollution.
According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), lead exposure caused 1.06 million deaths and 24.4 million years of healthy life lost (disability-adjusted life years (DALYs)) worldwide in 2017. The burden was greatest in low- and middle-income countries. According to IHME, lead exposure was responsible for 63.2 percent of the global burden of idiopathic developmental intellectual disability in 2016, 10.3 percent of the global burden of hypertensive heart disease, 5.6 percent of the global burden of ischaemic heart disease, and 6.2 percent of the global burden of stroke.
The researchers also warn that lead manufacturing is likely to increase as a result of modern society’s obsession with electronics, which is an early warning sign. The researchers examined bone fragments from 130 people who lived in Rome from 12,000 years ago to the 17th century and calculated the amount of lead pollution over time.
The consequences for our health could be catastrophic. Erel warned that “without proper regulation, we will continue to experience the damaging health effects of toxic metals contamination,” particularly as the global manufacturing of electronic devices expands.
Lead has an effect on children’s developing nervous systems, and elevated levels in the blood have been linked to hyperactivity, attention problems, behavioral issues, and impairments in thinking, understanding, and learning. Despite the fact that deteriorating lead paint in pre-1979 housing is the most common source of lead exposure in children, data show that at least 30% of children with elevated blood lead levels were exposed from a source other than paint.