How Lead Poisoning Is Treated

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Lead gets stored in the bones of the body, making it particularly hard to treat. For this reason, many public health and medical professionals will emphasize the importance of preventing exposure to and absorption of lead altogether—even (and especially) after you've already been diagnosed with lead poisoning—by making changes to your environment or diet.

For some individuals with high lead levels, however, more advanced treatment, such as chelation therapy, may be needed.

Lifestyle Changes

After lead has entered the body, it can be tough to remove, and any further contact with the heavy metal will build on itself, raising the risk for more and more health concerns.

That's why finding and eliminating any sources of lead, as well as slowing the body's absorption of the heavy metal, is absolutely essential to addressing lead poisoning.

Environmental Changes

For cases of lead toxicity in kids, local public health officials will likely investigate the child's environment (such as the home, school, or daycare) and other aspects of the family's jobs, hobbies, or lifestyle that could be exposing them to lead.

Generally speaking, however, there are a few things that families can begin to do right away to prevent any further exposure to lead:

  • Ensure there aren't any peels, chips, or chewable surfaces where lead paint has been used.
  • Vacate any home built before 1978 that's undergoing renovation until everything's been cleaned up.
  • Isolate potential sources of lead until they can be tested, removed, or cleaned—lock up certain rooms where lead paint is peeling or put up temporary barriers like duct tape.
  • Regularly wash hands, toys, and common surfaces that might get dusty or covered in dirt from outside, including floors and windows. Likewise, always remove shoes after coming inside.
  • Don't let kids play in plain soil, opting instead for sandboxes, grassy areas, or wood chips.
  • Avoid other non-residential sources of lead like traditional folk medicine, candies imported from Mexico, cookware and containers that aren't lead-free, and recalled toys.
  • Switch to using only cold water to prep food or baby formula, as hot water from inside the home is more likely to contain lead than cold water from the local water supply.

Doctors might also recommend children and other individuals with high lead levels be hospitalized or otherwise be relocated if they are unable to return home due to the high risk of lead exposure there—at least until the sources of lead can be removed or a safer living environment can be arranged.

Dietary Changes

Certain nutrients—like iron and calcium — have been shown to help protect the body against lead by binding with it and stopping it from being absorbed or stored. These nutrients are already a part of a healthful, balanced diet, so for most individuals, sticking to standard nutritional guidelines will go a long way in helping the body protect itself from high levels of lead.

Iron deficiency, on the other hand, can make it easier for the body to absorb lead, so eating foods that are rich in iron may help slow lead levels from building up in the blood, especially in children who tend to absorb the heavy metal more quickly than older kids and adults.

Foods rich in iron include poultry, seafood, and iron-fortified cereals. Vitamin C can also help the body absorb iron, so it's important to pair iron-rich foods with a source of vitamin C, such as oranges, pineapples, or cantaloupe.

Similarly, research has shown calcium might make it harder for the body to store lead, especially in pregnant women. Unfortunately, calcium can also keep the body from absorbing iron, so care should be taken to eat calcium-rich foods at separate times than predominantly iron-rich foods. While milk, yogurt, and cheese are all good sources of calcium, you can get it from non-dairy foods, too, like dark-green vegetables and fortified soy milk.

Much of the research on nutrition in lead is on the prevention of lead absorption—not on clearing the body of the metal—so these recommendations are mostly about helping individuals already exposed to lead stop lead levels from continuing to rise. For those with already high levels of lead in the body, however, more advanced treatment might be necessary in addition to environmental and dietary changes.

Chelation Therapy 

For those whose blood lead levels are confirmed around 45 μg/dL(micrograms per deciliter) or higher, doctors might recommend chelation therapy as a means to remove some of the lead that has built up in the body. This type of therapy involves administering a drug that will bind to (or chelate) lead, breaking particles down to make them less toxic and more easily removed from the body through urine or feces.

Several chelation drugs are available on the market, and each varies slightly in how its administered, when, and how well it works. What specific drug to use in any given case should be determined by a highly trained and experienced specialist.

Who Should Get Chelation Therapy?

It's important to note that chelation therapy for those testing above 45 μg/dL is a guideline and not a concrete protocol. Not everyone above that level should receive the therapy, and there are cases where children, especially, might need to be chelated despite having lead levels below 45 μg/dL.

In those instances, doctors may run a type of urine test to see whether the child will respond to chelation therapy—though these tests are not recommended by health agencies like the American College of Medical Toxicology and researchers have expressed concerns about their use in recent decades.

Side Effects

While chelation therapy has been used for years as a way to remove heavy metals like lead from the body, its side effects can be pretty severe. As a result, children should receive their therapy at a medical facility with an intensive care unit in the event they don't respond well to the treatment.

Side effects of chelation therapy drugs will vary depending on the drug used, but they can include: 

  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Red and/or watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Rashes
  • Reduced white blood cell count
  • Blood in the urine
  • Damage to the liver or kidneys

Likewise, some of these drugs can exacerbate symptoms of lead poisoning in cases where lead levels are especially high, and, in rare cases, they can cause an allergic reaction (such as in those with peanut allergies). For this reason, many doctors will recommend even adults undergoing this treatment do so in a hospital or other medical facility familiar with chelation and its possible effects.

It's important to reiterate that chelation therapy might not be the best treatment option for every case of lead poisoning, and doctors who aren't highly experienced in treating high lead levels should always consult a specialist, such as a medical toxicologist, before deciding whether or not to recommend chelation therapy.

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