SSG Blog

Lead Poisoning: Prevention and Detection

Posted on April 4th, 2023   |   SSG

Lead poisoning is a serious problem in the U.S. It can lead to a range of symptoms, permanent cognitive impairments, and even death. Providers must regularly test at-risk individuals for elevated lead blood levels to prevent exposure. The public health department must then organize the data to respond to the situation as quickly as possible.

According to the World Health Organization, nearly a million people die yearly due to lead poisoning. It remains a common problem in the U.S. and abroad, as lead is found in many products and materials in homes and buildings. Exposure can lead to a range of negative health effects, including nausea, headaches, fatigue, and developmental disabilities that can affect a person’s cognitive abilities. Children and adults are both susceptible to these risks, but children can grow up to experience a lifetime of complications when exposed at a young age. 

Considering the risks of exposure, communities and public health departments must work on the frontlines of lead poisoning prevention and detection to keep the local population safe. This includes monitoring patients, including adults and children, for symptoms of lead poisoning, removing possible sources of contamination from the environment, and testing individuals for elevated levels of lead in their blood. Data management and analysis play an essential role. Officials can use the information they receive from the latest cases of lead poisoning to identify and remove the contamination sources while ensuring individuals who have been exposed receive adequate care and treatment. 

What is lead poisoning?

Lead is a natural-occurring metal found in the earth and used in many products, including paint, solvents, and other construction materials. It was used to build many of the country’s water pipes, but certain chemicals can wear down the lead inside the pipes so that it spreads through the local water supply. It is also found in homes and buildings constructed before 1978. While lead has since been banned in the construction of new homes, many buildings and products still contain this material. 

Lead poisoning is characterized by elevated levels of lead in the blood. The material can be ingested or inhaled if lead dust particles spread through the air. 

What causes lead poisoning?

Ingesting or breathing in lead particles leads to lead poisoning. The material is distributed to the brain, liver, kidney, and bones and will accumulate over time. Once there is too much lead in the body, it can negatively affect the person’s health. Exposure can affect multiple body systems. 

What are the initial symptoms of lead poisoning?

Some individuals who have been exposed to lead may not have any symptoms, but they tend to be more evident in children. The higher the lead concentration, the more severe the health effects will be. 

Symptoms of lead poisoning can include: 

  • Nausea, constipation, lack of appetite, and vomiting
  • Fatigue, muscle weakness, and irritability
  • Confusion, headaches, lightheadedness, and difficulty problem-solving. 
  • In extreme cases, symptoms can include seizures, unconsciousness, and even death.

How toxic is lead? How much lead exposure is dangerous?

No amount of lead is considered safe. It is considered extremely toxic to humans. While many people have small traces of lead in their blood, only elevated blood lead levels may warrant medical attention. However, any amount of exposure can lead to harmful effects. 

For children, a blood lead reference value (BLRV) of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter indicates a high level of lead in the bloodstream. This indicates the child may have lead poisoning or may go on to develop symptoms of lead poisoning and additional medical attention is required. 

A blood test with less than 10 µg/dL is considered normal for adults. If the level is above 5 µg/dL, it may be considered elevated. Anything above 40 µg/dL requires additional medical attention. 

Who is at risk of lead poisoning? 

Lead poisoning is a risk to anyone near a product or environment containing lead, including adults and children. Young kids are considered particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning as well as pregnant women.  

Large portions of the U.S. population have already been exposed as children. A study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 90% of the children in the U.S. born between 1951 and 1980 had blood-lead levels higher than the threshold recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Anyone living in a building or home constructed before 1978 is at risk as well as those who used to live in another country that doesn’t limit or regulate the use of lead. Children who accidentally eat paint chips or dirt are also at more risk. Welders, metal workers, and those working with lead objects also face a higher threat of exposure.

How can I detect and prevent lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning is detected and diagnosed using a blood test that identifies the amount of lead in the person’s blood. This is what’s known as the blood lead level (BLL). To perform the test, the provider will need to take a blood sample from the patient. It is usually drawn from the vein on the inside of the elbow. The amount of lead in the blood is then analyzed and calculated to determine the exact level. A lancet may be used to perform the test on young children. 

What are some ways to prevent lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning begins with a robust lead poisoning prevention plan. This condition can be prevented by removing known hazards from the environment, including lead-based paints, toys, products, and construction materials. In some cases, the building or local water system may need to be replaced and/or torn down if it was built with lead. Washing dust off toys and surfaces can also help eliminate the spread of lead-based particles. Ripped or peeling paint should be removed or repaired safely. But removing the hazard or source of contamination isn’t always possible. 

That’s why communities and healthcare providers must regularly test for lead poisoning. Everyone should receive a blood test at least once a year to ensure they haven’t been exposed to lead. Individuals, especially young children, who live in areas or homes where lead exists should be tested much more frequently. Anyone with symptoms of lead poisoning should also seek medical attention right away.

Public health departments must also organize and analyze the data they collect on lead poisoning to prevent others from being exposed using a lead poisoning prevention program. The platform is a centralized database that can be used to track and monitor existing cases of lead poisoning. All blood lead level tests should be included in the database so the department can understand where these cases are occurring and who is most likely to be affected. 

Officials must act fast when someone in the community tests positive for lead poisoning, as it may be a sign of contamination, which means others may be at risk of exposure. Once the test comes back negative, the department should have protocols in place to respond. This can include interviewing the patient, logging their symptoms, and inspecting their work and/or home environment to identify the source of contamination. In this sense, every case of lead poisoning is like a mystery that needs to be solved as quickly and accurately as possible. 

Public health workers and investigators should be able to log supplementary information about each case in the system, including how the person was exposed, how they have been affected, and whether the source of contamination has been removed. 

The system should automatically import various file types, including clinician notes and blood test results, into the database for immediate analysis without workers having to enter this information by hand. Automatic child-parent address matching will also help workers locate individuals who may have been exposed, so they can seek out medical treatment and take the proper precautions to protect themselves and their loved ones, such as fixing their home and eating foods rich in calcium that can help the body get rid of excess lead. 

Collecting and analyzing public health data is the key to preventing lead poisoning in the U.S. Public health departments should update their blood lead surveillance systems to ensure they are prepared to respond to cases of lead poisoning as soon as they appear. It is about educating and informing the public on the risks of lead and what to do if they have been exposed. Providers, educators, caregivers, and community leaders must work with the public health department to protect the local population from harm. 

Learn more about SSG’s lead poisoning prevention program software to see what a difference this technology can make.