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Lead poisoning’s harmful impact on physical and mental health

Lead poisoning’s harmful impact on physical and mental health

Flint’s drinking water became contaminated with lead in April 2014 after lead leaked from the pipes and fixtures into the city’s drinking water. In January 2016, President Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Flint, Michigan, after thousands of children and pregnant women were exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water.

Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin that affects the brain and nervous system. It is a soft, heavy, toxic metal that is not visible to the naked eye and has no taste or particular odor. Although lead was once commonly used in house paint, gasoline, utensils and toys in the United States, the use of lead-based paint for these products is currently prohibited by law.

Lead is still present everywhere, especially in older houses, and is found in many common products, including toys, pipes and sink faucets, fishing sinkers, curtain weights, bullets, jewelry, pottery, storage batteries and art supplies. Like many other common products, lead piping used in water distribution systems can contaminate drinking water, much like the water crisis in Flint.

Health consequences of toxic lead exposure

Lead exposure often occurs without any noticeable symptoms, but it can easily enter the body by being inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin. Over time, repeated exposure to small amounts of lead can build up to toxic levels in the body. Children are at a particularly high risk when they live in old houses with chipping paint, as they are prone to putting fingers and objects with lead inside their mouths.

Lead is dangerous because once it is in a person’s system it is distributed throughout the body just like other minerals (e.g., iron, calcium, zinc) and can damage the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen to organs and tissues (i.e., anemia). It can also interfere with the metabolism of vitamin D and accumulate in bones where it interferes with the absorption of calcium, which bones need to grow strong and healthy.

Lead poisoning can lead to numerous physical and mental health consequences. Some of the signs and symptoms of lead exposure in children and adults include:

  • Irritability or grouchiness
  • Low appetite and energy
  • Headaches
  • Weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal pain and cramps
  • Joint and muscle weakness and pain
  • Numbness or tingling in the extremities
  • Pale skin from anemia
  • Metallic taste in mouth
  • Blue line around gums
  • High blood pressure

At very high levels, lead can damage the kidneys and nervous system and cause vomiting, severe abdominal pain and cramping, stumbling when walking, muscle weakness, seizures, encephalopathy (i.e., damage, disease or malfunction of the brain that manifests as an altered mental state, confusion, seizures or coma, depending on severity), unconsciousness and even death in both children and adults.

Neuropsychological and behavioral effects of lead toxicity in children

Lead poisoning is very common among preschoolers and young children, and about 1 in 20 children have high levels of lead in their blood. At least 4 million households have children who are exposed to high levels of lead, and about 500,000 children ages 1 to 5 years in the U.S. have blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Lead is more harmful to children because their brains and nervous systems are still developing. Exposure to even low levels of lead can cause irreversible damage to the brain and nervous system. Even during pregnancy, high blood lead levels can harm the fetus, resulting in low birth weight, stillbirth or miscarriage, and newborns exposed to lead before birth are more likely to exhibit learning problems and slowed growth.

Children who are exposed to high levels of lead may develop many neuropsychological and behavioral functioning problems, including:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Temper tantrums
  • Fearfulness
  • Antisocial behavior
  • Aggression and impulsive behavior
  • Attention and concentration problems
  • Learning problems (e.g., reading, language, math and writing)
  • Problems remembering new information
  • Poor fine or gross motor coordination
  • Hearing loss and auditory processing difficulties
  • Speech and language problems
  • Poor language understanding or usage
  • Decreased bone and muscle growth
  • Deficits in intellectual functioning (e.g., mental retardation, lowered IQ)
  • Developmental delays
  • Loss of developmental skills
  • Reduced problem-solving abilities
  • Problems in social relationships

The consequences of toxic lead exposure in childhood can affect people well into their adult years. In an epidemiological study of young adults published in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine, Lynette Stokes and colleagues examined the current adverse neurobehavioral effects of environmental lead exposure during childhood in a group of 281 young adults and found that young adults exhibited significant adverse neurological effects 20 years after childhood environmental exposure to lead.

Mental health consequences of lead exposure

Lead has well-documented cognitive and behavioral effects in children and adults who are occupationally exposed to lead. For example, children born to mothers exposed to toxic agents (e.g., lead and alcohol) during the pregnancy were up to 300 percent more likely to develop schizophrenia. Even small amounts of damaging toxic agents at a crucial stage in fetal development can increase the risk of schizophrenia and other mental health problems.

Studies have also found that lead exposure increases the risk for mood and anxiety disorders. For example, Maryse Bouchard and colleagues found that young adults with higher blood lead levels were more likely to have major depression and panic disorder. Another study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found that among premenopausal women and women who took hormone replacement therapy (HRT), low levels of cumulative lead exposure were associated with depressive and phobic anxiety symptoms.

The water contamination crisis in Flint brought to light the dangers of toxic lead exposure on physical and mental health. Something that could have been avoided is now going to have damaging and lifelong consequences for thousands of newborns, young children and adults who were exposed to the lead-contaminated water supply. It is important for children and adults to be aware of the dangers of lead toxicity and take precautions to decrease lead exposure.

The Sovereign Health Group offers behavioral treatment programs for substance abuse, mental illness and co-occurring disorders. For more information about eating disorders or the programs offered at Sovereign Health, please contact our 24/7 helpline to speak to a member of our team.

About the author

Amanda Habermann is a writer for the Sovereign Health Group. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at