Lead is a bluish-gray metal found in the earth’s crust and can be found in dust, soil, water and other products used by humans. Lead compounds can either be organic (when combined with carbon and hydrogen) and inorganic (combination with other elements other than carbon and hydrogen). Due to its useful properties, lead has been used since time unmemorable in pipes and plumbing, tableware, pigments and paints, lead-acid batteries, gasoline, ammunitions, construction materials, cosmetics and some folk medicines.
Can You Get Cancer From Lead?
Many people ask a question about lead “Can lead exposure cause cancer?.” There have been many studies and observations, whether lead can cause cancer or not. There are lab-based studies, in which lab animals are exposed to high doses of lead to see cancerous changes in them. The other studies entail human studies, in which people living in high exposure areas are studied for carcinogenic changes. Generally, workers who have high occupational exposure to lead have greater amount of lead in their circulating blood. Both animal as well as human studies have linked lead exposure to cancer development and lead is considered a probable carcinogen.
Lead exposure has been linked to lung cancer, especially in people dealing with lead batteries and smelting. There is 20% increased risk of developing lung cancer in professional painters due to inhalation of toxic fumes, as per WHO data.
Several studies have also linked lead exposure to increased risk of stomach cancer. Occupational lead exposure has also been linked to other cancers of brain, kidney, colon, bladder and rectum.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), National Toxicology Program (NTP) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have all classified lead and inorganic lead compounds as potential human carcinogens. There is need for more information and research on this field, as data available is inadequate and insufficient.
Health Problems Associated with Lead Exposure
Other health related problems are associated with lead exposure. Lead circulates in the blood and settles in various body parts including bones, teeth, brain, kidneys and other vital organs. Lead affects other body parts and the most concerning effect is on brain, especially if it is a child. It can affect the development of cognition and intelligence in a child. It can also retard growth, impair hearing and speech and behavioral changes are also a concern.
In adults, it can cause headaches, mood swings, loss of concentration, memory issues, slurred speech, tingling and weakness in extremities along with seizures and coma. It can also cause gastrointestinal disorders such as constipation, nausea and stomach cramps. Increased blood concentration of lead can cause kidney damage, reproductive problems such as miscarriage and infertility in women and low sperm count and erectile dysfunction as well as impotence in men. In addition, it can cause bone marrow damage causing anemia and bone and joint pain symptoms.
Chronic lead exposure and build up of lead in body can eventually lead to death of a person, if no preventative measures are taken.
Sources of Lead Exposure
Lead exposure can occur due to either inhalation (by breathing) or due to ingestion (swallowing or eating). Lead from various sources such as gasoline, paint from old homes built before 1978, dust and soil around houses and manufacturing sites, contaminated toys, products, cosmetics, traditional medicines, contaminated water from plumbing and soldered pipes, fixtures, glazed pottery, and ceramic work.
Workers who work in manufacturing units as part of their jobs are exposed to lead that can be harmful for them in increased concentrations. These manufacturing units include lead smelters and refinery works, battery units, leaded glass working units, radiator units, units for metal welding, lead mines, newspaper printing, pipe cutting, foundry units, stained glass units, jewelry units, cable and splicer units, plumbing, brass and bronze manufacturing units, ceramic units, plastic and rubber units, gun and ammunition units. All the workers in these units are exposed to some degree and the degree of exposure depends on the type of work and duration of exposure.