A Dangerous Element
The problem of exposure to potentially harmful levels of the metallic element lead has been in the news lately, because two schools in Orleans Parish were closed for short periods while officials conducted tests for lead levels on some students and at the schools.
In both cases, the schools were housed in older buildings that had been painted with lead-based paints prior to the 1970s, when the federal government ordered lead to be removed from paints, gasoline and containers that come in direct contact with food and beverages. Instances of lead-related ailments have drastically declined in recent years, but problems often surface when older structures are stripped of their old, lead-based paint. When that happens, lead can escape into the air and sometimes into the nearby soil, increasing the risk of exposure.
Tests have shown that lead exposure may be related to brain damage, mental retardation, learning disabilities, hearing loss, kidney damage and other serious ailments in children and may also impair proper growth and calcium metabolism in their bodies. In adults, harmful levels of lead may cause kidney damage, memory impairment, seizures, comas and death.
According to Dr. Raj Warrier, professor of pediatrics and vice chairman of the LSU Health Sciences Center Department of Pediatrics, "Lead serves absolutely no role in the human body."
Warrier, who has treated many patients for lead-related illnesses during his career, notes that some historians have theorized that part of the reason for the decline of the Roman Empire may have been due to lead exposure. The ancient Romans drank wine and water in lead goblets and this may have adversely affected their brains and motor skills. Today, people who work or spend a great deal of their time in closed shooting galleries may also be at risk, he says, because lead is still the primary element used in bullet heads. Exposure to large amounts of lead may even be a contributing factor to violent behavior in both children and adults, the doctor adds.
Warrier concurs that much of today's exposure to lead may be related to people living or working in older buildings where lead-based paint is being removed. In New Orleans, especially, with its abundance of old buildings, the potential for exposure is high. Workers performing the removal are most susceptible to exposure, but those who breathe the air nearby or come in contact with the soil are also vulnerable.
Lead levels above 400 parts per million are considered unacceptable by federal standards. At one of the schools that was closed recently, levels were as high as 1,400 parts per million in the school's garden. Earlier, six of the more than 200 students from another school who were tested were shown to have elevated levels of lead in their blood.
If tests show more than 10 micrograms per deciliter (mg/dl) in a child's blood, the situation warrants further monitoring and counseling, Warrier says. More than 20 mg/dl requires a careful examination of the child's diet and what they may be exposed to at home or school. Levels of 40 mg/dl and up warrant concern and more aggressive treatment, he says.
Low blood levels of lead may be treated orally with a medicine known as DMSA (chemate), while higher levels need to be treated with injections of EDTA or BAL, the doctor says. These treatments may have side effects and may require hospitalization and careful monitoring for toxicity.
Parents should educate themselves about the symptoms of lead exposure and consult a doctor if they suspect a problem. Stay away from areas where lead paint removal is going on and, if removing paint yourself, wear proper breathing gear. Although lead poisoning is not as common now as it was 30 or 40 years ago, it still needs to be taken seriously. If you suspect lead poisoning, contact your local parish health unit (565-8188 in Orleans Parish).