The Hidden Sources of Lead Poisoning


Lead is all around us.

lead gasoline label

By Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

If you’ve even bought a house or rented an apartment you’ve signed a lead paint disclosure, but maybe you’re not sure why.

We know that lead is bad for us. The harmful effects of lead poisoning are well documented, but unless you know someone that has been personally affected, many do not fully understand the ramifications of lead exposure.

Hidden Sources of Lead Contamination

Lead Pipes

There’s been a lot of talk about Flint, Michigan in the news. Activ Doctors Medical Director Dr. Howard Zahalksy did some research, sorting through all the differing accounts to get to the bottom of what happened. He found that:

“Flint, Michigan, like many cities, has many old cities has lead pipes that connect the houses to the water mains. Having old lead pipes is not dangerous by itself, because over time mineral deposits build up and coat the insides of the pipe, protecting the people drinking the water from lead poisoning. When Flint changed water sources they had to add chemicals to the water to clean bacteria from the water, and those chemicals dissolved the mineral deposits inside the pipes, making the water brown and exposing and dissolving the lead on the inside of the pipes.”


But say you don’t live in Flint, should you be worried about lead contamination?

The short answer is, “YES!”

Other ways that lead can enter your water include:

  • Grounding

    Traditionally, when electricians grounded the wires of a house they would use the metal plumbing (hey – it was there!). It has been shown the doing that causes a low level electrical current to constantly run through the lead pipes and over time the lead will leach into the water.

  • Lead Joints

    Even if you have a newer house, built with today’s standard copper pipes, those pipes are connected by lead soldering. Why? Because lead has a lower melting point than copper, so it’s easier to work with. It was thought that just using it at the joints would be such a small amount as to be negligible for human health, but we are learning that any amount of lead is dangerous.

  • Brass Fixtures

    Surprised? In order to make brass moldable, they had to include up to 2% lead. Over time, some of that lead can leach out into the water. Now you have a solid reason to update that bathroom.

    Lead Paint

    It might not have “celebrity” status right now, but lead paint is the most common source of lead poisoning –and has been for years. We stopped making lead paint in 1980, but a 1990 study found that 83% of homes built before 1980 have lead paint in them.

    A more recent study (c. 2000) found a decrease in the number of units with lead-based paint, finding lead paint in only 38 million (or 40%) of the 96 million housing units tested. The study attributes this to increased education about lead paint and renovation of older units.

    Lead is still used in paint in many unregulated countries. In 2007, Mattel recalled millions of toys (made in China) that were contaminated with lead paint.


    Lead is naturally present in all soil. If you were to find a patch of dirt that had never been reached by humanity, it could have between 10 to 40 milligrams of lead per kilogram of soil.

    In urban areas, because of the widespread use of leaded paint and gasoline, contamination from various industrial sources and landfills, soils often have lead concentrations much greater than normal background levels. These levels can range from 150 mg/kg to as high as 10,000 mg/kg at the base of a home painted with lead-based paint.

    Even in non-industrialized areas, lead can makes its way into the soil. Since lead does not biodegrade, it can remain in soils for thousands of years. Old battlefields, like Gettysburg, have high concentrations of lead because lead bullets have leached into the soil.

    Herbal Remedies

    Traditional medicines are one of the most common source of lead poisoning in the U.S and may account for tens of thousands of incidences of lead poisoning among children each year. Lead is commonly incorporated into herbal remedies in Asian, Indian and Hispanic cultures.

    Greta and Azarcon, for example, are Hispanic traditional medicines for an upset with lead content as high as 90%.


    Cosmetics companies use lead to add gloss and make lipstick malleable. The FDA conducted an expanded survey of lipsticks in 2010, testing four hundred commercially available lipsticks for total lead content.

    And you know what they found? There was lead in all 400 products that they tested. You can read the results here.

    “Even if the amount of lead in some of these products is very small, more and more studies are showing that there is no safe lead level,” explains Dr. Zahalksy, “so this is something parents of tweens or teenagers want to be aware of.”

    The Consequences of Lead Poisoning

    What does lead do in your body that makes it so dangerous?

    The main way that lead hurts you is that in binds to certain enzymes and makes them ineffective. Anytime anything is growing or changing it requires and enzyme to facilitate the change of one chemical to another. Some of the most common enzymes include insulin and thyroid hormone, which regulates your metabolism.

    Children are affected much more severely by lead poisoning because their bodies are still growing. The most dire consequences of lead poisoning have to do with brain function. Lead inhibits the growth of the myelin coating on nerve cells, which enables to nerve cells communicate quickly.

    Any lead level above 10 μg/dL is considered dangerous, though any level of lead is of concern. “We cannot officially treat lead poisoning until you reach 45μg/dL,” explains Dr. Zahalsky, “but even small levels of lead can have a major impact on the neurologic development of children.”

    One study found that a child’s average IQ decreased approximately 2 IQ points for the BPb range of 10–20 μg/dL. This can have a profound influence on their ability to learn.

    Even with treatment, much of the neurological damage from lead poisoning can be irreversible, or take weeks, months or years to heal.

    How Can Activ Doctors Online Work For You?

    Personal Health Records

    Most cases of lead poisoning are handled by tracking and removing the lead source, and monitoring the children to make sure lead levels go down. With a personal health record you can track lead levels, so that even if you move of change doctors your new doctor will be in a better position to identify and treat any delayed consequences.

    Second Medical Opinions

    Exposure to lead has been linked to IQ deficits, shortened attention span, behavioral problems, hearing damage, stunted growth, and lowered birth weight. If you or your child is dealing with lead poisoning or one of the side effects, you can speaks with experts across the country and around the world to find the help you need.


    No need to take your child out of school for a day just to visit the doctor. If your doctor participates, you can discuss treatment and follow up using our secure, video platform at time that is convenient to you.

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