Lead: a bigger problem than meets the eye

While a great deal of attention has been focused on the damaging effects of mercury, at least in alternative medicine circles, the other major toxic metal – lead – may have been
overlooked. Recently, two very interesting articles on this topic were published in the journal Alternative Medicine Review. The abstracts for both articles can be found at PubMed by searching under Altern Med Rev. 2006 Mar; 11 (1): 2-22 and Altern Med Rev. 2006 Jun; 11 (2): 114-127. To obtain the full articles with citations, contact the publisher at www.thorne.com. The following piece will summarize parts of these articles while adding some of my personal observations and experiences, but no citations are included.

The thought of lead toxicity evokes images of lead in paint and gasoline, and since both of these were phased out decades ago, it is only understandable that many of us think of lead as a problem of the past. It is also a fact that since lead was removed from gasoline and paint blood levels of lead in Americans have dropped markedly, further suggesting that this is no longer a health issue. However, on closer inspection it is apparent that blood levels tell only part of the story and that the problem of lead toxicity is still very much a reality.

If we only consider the leaded paint still present in older homes, the EPA recently estimated that as many as 25% of American children are exposed to a significant hazard from leaded paint. Much of this paint is deteriorating to the point where it now releases more lead than it did previously, leading to contamination of dust and soil in surrounding areas – including backyards where children play.

Lead is also a persistent environmental toxin. This means that, once released into the environment, it stays there almost indefinitely. As an example, lead released into the air over the years before leaded gasoline was banned is doing nothing other than continuing to spread through the environment and turning up in the most unexpected places. An article I recently read in an Italian online newspaper described the high concentrations of lead found in the deep Mediterranean waters surrounding Italy. Through highly sophisticated analysis, it was concluded that this lead had originated from gasoline. Though lead from gasoline would normally precipitate and not dissolve in seawater, in this case it had fully dissolved through environmental action spanning decades.

Lead also continuesto be released, as a result of various industrial processes, through imported products like toys or vinyl miniblinds that were mislabeled or not properly inspected or through old lead water pipes still in use and new plumbing components in which limited amounts of lead are still allowed.

As it turns out, much of our nation’s drinking water supply is contaminated with lead to varying degrees. To deal with this situation, municipalities add a decontaminating chemical that causes lead to precipitate so that city water can pass inspection. However, this same chemical then leaches more lead from lead pipes or other lead components in the plumbing system, resulting in high lead content where it really counts: at the tap.

To get an idea of the extent of the problem, consider that drinking water in schools in the Seattle area was found to be contaminated in 2005 even after positive tests performed in
2004 had triggered major investments to replace drinking fountains and fixtures. In 2004 in the DC area, the EPA reported that the water in 23,000 homes known to have lead service pipes was contaminated. In some cases, the amount of lead found was 20 times higher than the EPA’s action levels. According to the EPA this represents only a fraction of the problem because there are “many public water supplies where water is not being tested, or if it is tested, where the information is not promptly or fully communicated to consumers.”

In my opinion, everyone should use simple and inexpensive home testing kits available online (I also have them at my office) to test the water in their homes even if they don’t drink it but use it for cooking and other purposes. When I did this test at my office, which is in a duplex built in the 1930’s, I got a clear positive result. Much to my surprise, I also got a positive result, although weaker, in my home that was built in 2001.

The mother of a child who continues to test positive for lead even after more than a year of treatment recently also got a clear positive result when she tested tap water in her home.

Although she and her family do not drink the tap water, they use it for bathing and her son has a habit of always swallowing some of the bath water. As it turned out, city authorities were aware of the lead situation in her part of town, but had taken no action because in city-sponsored tests the lead levels were a fraction below EPA limits.

Part of why the impact of lead on health is widely underestimated is that blood tests are the only medically recognized means of identifying exposure to lead. Children in America are screened this way at regular pediatric check-ups, but this method of testing has clear limitations.

First of all, it is well known that, following exposure, lead remains in blood only briefly before being stored in organs and tissues where it does its damage over time. Clearly, there are two ways in which toxic levels of lead can be attained: through high-level exposure, which will produce transiently high blood levels, or through prolonged low-level exposure where blood levels are never abnormally high. The latter is what’s happening in most cases today.

Another problem is that the threshold for lead toxicity was arbitrarily set at 10 mcg/dl in blood for children and even higher for adults. This was based on decades-old research, but new studies are revealing beyond any doubt that much lower blood levels can be equally toxic – sometimes even more so if sustained over time.

A better test – though not a perfect one – is a challenge test, where a product that draws lead from tissues and causes it to be excreted is administered intravenously or orally and then urine levels are measured. An impassioned endorsement of this form of testing is contained in the book “Turning Lead into Gold.” However, this testing method has never been accepted as a valid medical test and I hear that some physicians who use it routinely are being threatened with disciplinary action and even loss of license.

You may wonder why there is so much opposition to this test. One criticism leveled against it is that there are no clear standards or broadly accepted normal ranges. This is a valid (though weak) argument, as it seems to me that a group of resourceful professionals should have little trouble coming up with adequate standards. Maybe what’s really lacking is a will to acknowledge the extent to which lead is affecting our health.

Once in the body, lead is harmful for every aspect of health and at every age. A new study that can be downloaded in its entirety from www.ehponline.org is entitled “Fetal Lead Exposure at Each Stage of Pregnancy as a Predictor of Infant Mental Development.” Researchers measured blood levels of lead in pregnant women at every trimester of pregnancy and at birth in umbilical blood. They later found a direct relationship between levels of lead in mothers’ blood and deficits in children’s neurological development. In fact, researchers identified a continuum of adverse effects beginning at levels of lead that were barely measurable. In addition, the earlier on in pregnancy lead was found, the more profound its effects.

In children, chronic low-level exposure to lead has been linked with hyperactivity, attention deficit, poor impulse control, lack of coordination, inability to follow sequential directions, lowered IQ, and more. These behaviors are exactly what millions of children are treated for with amphetamines and other synthetic drugs merely to control their symptoms, while no consideration is given to possible causes (including lead exposure).

In adults, the first and most widely researched symptom of low-level exposure to lead is high blood pressure, a problem most Americans seem to be developing as they age. Yet, no one is told of a possible link to lead, and no effort is made to identify those who might have built up toxic levels of this metal. It could be all of us!

But the damaging effects of lead go far beyond high blood pressure. Lead induces oxidative damage to tissues, increasing the risk of every “disease of aging” including heart disease, stroke, cancer, and more. It also damages peripheral nerves, causing tingling or loss of sensation in the extremities. Lead has been linked with kidney disorders, impotence, depression, anxiety, and even osteoporosis. New Japanese research found that low-level exposure to lead can be the hidden cause of high cholesterol (see

70% or more of the lead we are exposed to is stored in our bones, from where it leaches out at a very slow rate that can go on for a lifetime if steps to remove it are not taken. The remaining 30% is stored in the brain, liver, kidneys and other organs.

Treatment to reverse or lessen the effects of lead should be directed at both removing the lead and using specific nutrients to counter or mitigate its adverse health effects and
promote recovery of damaged organs.

Removal of lead from the body has traditionally been achieved primarily with two pharmaceutical products, EDTA and DMSA. Both of these are well-researched, safe and effective. Not only that, their effectiveness can be measured and monitored through regular pre- and post-testing. Although these products are not universally tolerated, at least one of them usually is, and side effects are rare when used appropriately under competent guidance.

By contrast, the internet is replete with claims that products of every kind can produce almost miraculous results, cure cancer, and more. Most of these products simply do not work and are promoted heavily based on questionable testimonials without even the most basic research to support their effectiveness. However, one natural product I like and recommend is called Pectasol Chelation Complex. It contains modified citrus pectin, a fiber that has been shown in various studies to remove lead and other toxic metals from the body. In a recently published study this product was shown to increase lead excretion an average 500% (Phytother Res. 2006 Jul 11; find under PMID: 16835878).

The process of removing lead and other toxic metals from the body is known as chelation (pronounced key-lay-shun). While this step is essential, if not implemented correctly it can itself be harmful because at the same time as lead is taken out of the body minerals that are essential for health are also lost.

As noted above, removing the lead is simply not enough. Targeted nutrients should be taken to lessen the harmful effects of lead and repair the damage it causes. Nutrients that have been shown to have beneficial effects include antioxidants like vitamins A, C, E, beta-carotene, as well as melatonin, grape seed extract, alpha-lipoic acid, and more. Amino acids, including taurine, have also been shown to neutralize some of the damaging effects of lead on the brain and should be considered as part of a balanced program.

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