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Lead Exposure: It's More Than A Water Problem


Lead contamination caused a crisis with the water supply in Flint, Michigan. But the CDC says at least 4 million households have children living in them that are being exposed to high levels of lead.

Dr. Joann Schulte, a toxicologist with the North Texas Poison Center at Parkland Hospital System, talks about the dangers of lead exposure in this edition of Vital Signs.

Highlights from Dr. Schulte’s interview:

Is there a level of lead contamination considered “safe” or “not as dangerous”? I’d say “not as dangerous.”  I don’t know that any level of lead is safe. But it’s a matter of how do you completely eliminate it from the environment? I mean it’s still a source of pollution. There’s still old houses with lead paint chips in them. One thing that is not uncommon to hear about in Texas is pottery that is lead-contaminated. There’s makeup that contains lead. So there’s other sources of it.

It’s all around us? It’s all around us. Another thing we commonly see when we have lead clinic is people who are coming in from gun ranges. Lead is in bullets and we have treated people with blood lead levels of 40 to 70 who worked at gun ranges.

What is lead and what make it so dangerous? Lead is an element. And what make it dangerous is that, if you think back to your chemistry classes when you had to learn about the charges on stuff, lead is plus two which is the same as calcium, the same as iron. The body mistakes it for other compounds that are needed and puts into red blood cells, and it puts it elsewhere in the body. The other issue is that lead is not a one-time thing. If you have a high enough blood lead level and you get chelated with an oral medication and that gets rid of blood lead level, there’s still reservoirs of lead in your bone marrow. So you can be chelated one time and then your body does a redistribution and your blood lead level goes back up. So it could take a long, long time to get rid of huge exposures of lead.

Is lead exposure more harmful to children than adults? It’s harmful to adults in the acute sense, but it’s more harmful to children because their brains are still growing and developing and, in essence, you’re altering their development. The I.Q. thing is huge. There’ve been follow-up studies out of Boston that find with low blood lead levels, you can have an I.Q. point  difference of five to ten points.

For more information:

About Lead: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Symptoms of Lead Poisoning 

The Burden of Lead: West Dallas deals with contamination decades later

TCEQ: Exide Frisco Battery Recycling Center 

Agency: 1,001 Texas suppliers didn’t test for lead, copper in ’15 

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.