Flint, Michigan and its poisonous water isn’t big news anymore but that doesn’t mean the problem has gone away. It doesn't matter how many lawsuits are filed or how many glasses of Flint water President Obama casually drinks. The problems remain for the people of Flint. Fines will be issued, sure. A handful of people may pay a handful of millions—but that won’t do a single thing to fix the health problems caused by this case of epic disregard for human health and life.
The people of Flint will be dealing with the health issues long after the problem is “fixed” and the guilty parties are “punished.” And although the Flint situation was very high-profile, Flint residents aren’t the only people in this situation. A recent report by USA Today found at least 2,000 water systems with dangerous levels of lead across the country. A water sample from a Maine elementary school had levels 42 times higher than the EPA’s “safe” limit. And in Ithica, New York, another sample from an elementary school had a lead level that actually classified it as hazardous waste.
Lead is a problem. And since you can’t see, taste, or smell it in your water, you and your children could be drinking lead every day and not know it. And don’t think your local water authority would let you know if there’s a problem—at least 180 of the towns and cities in the USA Today investigation withheld the information from residents.
Could lead poisoning be at the root of the ADHD “epidemic”?
Lead is a cumulative poison. This means that it builds up in the body the longer you’re exposed to it. It also means that the longer you’re exposed, the more damage you’re likely to accrue. High lead levels can cause kidney damage, seizures, and death. But even very low levels can cause serious problems. Children are especially vulnerable since their nervous systems are still developing.
The symptoms of lead poisoning can be very subtle. Often those suffering poisoning don’t appear sick. They may have symptoms that mimic other problems. And some of the most common symptoms are the same symptoms that have landed millions of children prescriptions for dangerous stimulants.
Common signs of lead poisoning in children include:
- Developmental delays
- Fatigue Irritability
- Reduced attention span
- Lack of appetite
- Weight loss
- Difficulty sleeping
- Stomach aches or other aches and pains.
- Behavior problems
- Learning disabilities
Lead poisoning in children can also result in speech and language difficulties. It can cause brain damage. It can lower IQ. It can cause hearing damage. Even low levels of exposure can cause learning disabilities. And in severe cases, it can cause liver and kidney damage and even death.
The cluster of ADD/ADHD symptoms and the surprising prevalence of lead-contaminated water—especially in school water supplies—makes me wonder if we shouldn’t be testing kids for lead when they truly show ADHD symptoms and not just normal active kid behavior.
Adult symptoms of lead poisoning are similar to those in children, with a few notable additions. In adults, lead poisoning may also cause:
- Headaches Impotence
- High blood pressure
- Joint pain
- Cognitive decline
- Memory loss
- Mood disorders
- Numbness, pain, or tingling in the hands and feet
- Muscle pain
In men, it can cause abnormal sperm or low sperm count, and in women can cause miscarriages or premature births. Again, the cluster of neurological symptoms makes me question whether we should be eliminating lead as a cause in some cases before we start medicating or handing out other, more devastating diagnoses.
Fortunately, once the source of lead is eliminated the body will begin to clear the lead out. In milder cases of lead poisoning, removing the source of lead may be enough. In severe cases, chelation therapy—in which you are treated with a substance that binds to heavy metals such as lead and removes them from your blood stream—may be necessary. Removing the source of lead, however, remains the most important step.
How do you know if YOUR home is contaminated?
One of the common sources of lead is still lead-based paint. Although it was banned back in 1978, there are still many homes built before then that may contain lead paint. You may also find it in items bought at antique shops and flea markets. If you live in a house built before 1978, I strongly suggest having it inspected for lead paint—especially if you have children or grandchildren.
Water, as we have seen, is also a likely source of contamination. Since you can’t tell whether your water contains lead by looking at it or tasting it, the only way to know for sure is to have it tested. And although you can get local drinking water reports from the EPA, these just give a picture of the overall quality of the water in your town—not what comes out of the taps in your house.
My advice is to have your water tested for lead and other contaminants periodically, say once per year. You can buy a testing kit at most home improvement stores. Your local health department may offer water testing kits for free. And your water supplier may even perform the test for you for free. If you do purchase a water testing kit yourself, choose a kit that lets you send your sample off for lab analysis rather than using a do-it-yourself type test. Lab testing ensures more accurate results. Once you know whether your water is contaminated, you can take steps—such as installing a water filtration system—to remove it.
The symptoms of lead poisoning, as you can see, can also be caused by many other things. The only way to know for certain whether you have lead poisoning is to be tested. This is done with a simple blood test at a doctor’s office. Some health departments also offer testing.
Lead is a serious health threat, especially for children. If you—or anyone you love—is suffering from several of the symptoms listed above, be safe and ask to be tested. Mild cases are reversible. But chronic exposure can lead to permanent damage.