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Lead Poisoning: THE SILENT EPIDEMIC.
Transcript of Video made by Joan Luckhardt, produced for the New Jersey Lead Poisoning Prevention Program in approximately 1992. Transcribed by Kate Finlay-Jones

Lead Poisoning: THE SILENT EPIDEMIC

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Transcript of Video made by Joan Luckhardt, produced for the New Jersey Lead Poisoning Prevention Program in approximately 1992. Transcribed by Kate Finlay-Jones

[Permission to web-publish this transcript was kindly given by Joan Luckhardt]

Presenter - Kath MANAHAN:
Aleily Page is an energetic five-year-old. She once suffered lead encephalopathy, a serious lead poisoning disease.

Aleilyís MOTHER:
Sheís gotten quite sick and then presented having seizures (convulsions). Well since she began walking sheís like picking up everything. Everything she picks up she puts into her mouth and up until that time she became sick it was just like you know, and has gotten worse. Itís like she had a craving for things, dirt, dust in the house and out of the house. I had heard of lead poisoning but I had no knowledge the damage and so forth that it does to children and Iíve never seen children that had lead poisoning before.

Kath MANAHAN:
The public Health Service estimates Three Million children have toxic levels of lead in their blood. The children arenít the only ones who get sick from exposure to this toxic material. Some Nine Million adults also have unacceptable blood lead levels.

Ralph HAGGBLOM:
As the lead poisoning started to progress I was having a lot of problems with irritability. I had no appetite, I broke out with a lot of hives, irritability as I said, very fatigued in the late afternoons, bones in my arms, my legs were starting to hurt, low libido and some sort of loss of memory.

Kath MANAHAN:
Scientists have known the dangers of lead poisoning for centuries. We know now that lead can be passed from one generation to the next during pregnancy. That the presence of lead in a babyís blood or bones before or after birth can cause irreparable damage to physical, emotional and intellectual development. Exposure to even low levels of lead can leave a child scared for life.

Dr. John GRAEF, MD, Boston Childrenís Hospital:
We have indeed made a whole generation of Americans a little bit stupider, because they got lead poisoning. The fact that they donít know how much it effected or blunted their potential is a tragedy in itself.

Kath MANAHAN:
Hello Iím Kath Manahan. Today we can be thankful that the fazed reduction of lead in gasoline has lowered the average Americanís blood lead level by 38% in the past decade. New Jersey is the most industrialised state in the country and lead remains the second most prevalent chemical in use here today. It is in our soil, our water, the food we eat and the air we breathe. A National Health survey shows that millions of American children now carry unacceptable levels of lead in their bodies.

Lead is part of the national environment. It is believed that the fall of Rome was due in part to lead poisoning. The ancient Romans ingested large amounts of the metal through their leaded water pipes and drinking vessels. Many became sterile. In the past lead poisoning was considered a public health hazard for city children who lived in dilapidated housing and ate paint chips. Children would eventually wind up in the hospital emergency room having seizures or in a coma. Itís likely if you took a poll most of the participants would tell you that lead poisoning is not a serious threat today. But Steven Marcus Director of the New Jersey Poison Control Centre knows differently.

Dr. Steven MARCUS, MD, Director New Jersey Poison Control Centre:
I canít begin to tell you the number of times I get a telephone call from some doctor or some industrial hygienist that says they have some worker some place and has such and such symptoms and I say. ĎGee it sounds like it could be lead poisoning.í And they say. ĎWell I didnít think that lead poisoning existed any moreí.

Kath MANAHAN:
The presumption that lead poisoning is a problem of the past can be a deadly misconception. The fact is lead in the workplace still plays a major role in the overall number of lead poisoned cases that develop every year. Painters, sanders, automotive workers and those who work at indoor firing ranges are at risk. Efran Afrodato, A New York City Police Detective who trains emergency services officers in the use of rifles and handguns was poisoned on the job.

Efran AFRODATO:
What really made me believe it was when I got stuck here at the range. My starter, for the car went dead. And I told my buddy (Iím the Godfather of his son) and what he did was, went to the store, picked up a starter, came over here, took mine off, and put the new one on, and I just started fighting with him. And heíd gone way out of his way. And he comes and tells me. ĎAce why are you so irritable?í And thatís when I actually believed for the first time that I had been affected by it.

Dr. Joseph GRAZIANO, Ph.D., Colombia University:
Officer Afrodato was I believe at the time a pistol instructor. The ventilation system in the firing range was not operating as it should have and so the indoor lead concentration became quite high, the firing caps of the bullet has a lead compound in it. That little puff of smoke that you see when a gun is fired contains lead and so men that would work at the firing range, who are around this kind of smoke all day long, do get exposed to quite high levels of lead in an indoor firing range.

Kath MANAHAN:
Interior lead based paint was banned in this country in 1977 but in the 1970 sensors found that more than forty million houses across the United States were painted before World War II. They were painted with lead based paint. As a result tens of millions of people who live and work in those houses are threatened by lead poisoning. Also at high risk are industrial painters, men and women in construction, and the marine industries are still exposed to lead because the Government has not yet banned lead in all exterior paint.

Robert K. TUCKER, Ph.D., New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection:
Thereís the perception now among a lot of people that weíve solved some of the problems with exposure to lead. Particularly with the phase out of lead in paint for residential structures and phased down the lead in gasoline. There is no timetable for the phase out of lead in marine applications or the paint used in painting bridges. I think it will only be when the realisation comes that these are additional sources of lead and when it can be shown that these are also exposure sources to children that are causing health effects. I think then the pressure will be put on to phase out lead in these other uses.

Kath MANAHAN:
But the danger of lead poisoning is not confined to dilapidated housing it enters the industrial working environment too. Lead poisoning knows no economic or professional boundaries. A new phenomena, sometimes called ĎYuppie Lead Poisoningí has developed as young professionals buy up the homes in older neighbourhoods. Connie Clayman and Eric Sohberg bought a Brownstone in Jersey City and moved in with their daughter Kristen. They couldnít wait to start renovating. As they worked they were unknowingly breathing lead particles. Lead was the farthest thing from their minds and they didnít know the importance of proper lead removal. After months of work their home was beautiful but their daughter Kristen was poisoned.

Eric SOHLBERG:
We've come to believe now that it was mostly due to dust from renovating. For example if we took down a wall or a ceiling had to come down on the top floor that would make a dust in the air and we would clean up and dispose of the garbage but there would still be a lingering dust. Even if it was in a different part of the house and kept the doors closed, dust seeps throughout and lasts a long time. Itís really not safe to renovate in the same house weíve come to learn with children around. I mean you could renovate, you could seal off with plastic but your gonna walk in and out, your shoes will, your body will, something will come out and we found that dust is so insidious that sealing off with tape I donít even think would. Although people do that and it might be okay. I would say that itís taking a chance. Old houses are beautiful and we love our house but renovating one doesnít mix with young children.

Kath MANAHAN:
Kristen was diagnosed with lead poisoning several years ago.

Connie CLAYMEN:
When we found out that Kristen had lead, the doctor told us ĎWell I think she might have leadí and I said I think I know where this comes from, I should have thought of this beforeí, but I didnít. You donít think of it.

Kath MANAHAN:
But Connie and Eric are informed now and sheís working to get the word out to others.

Connie CLAYMEN:
Trying to get education about lead out is important to us now. We talk to as many people as we can and Iíve joined the Lead Advisory Group in Jersey City to try and fight lead because ignorance about lead poisoning. Everybody thinks it is some one elseís problem. Itís not their problem. The problem of lead poisoning is you donít see the effects of lead poisoning unless the kid is so sick, that really it is very extremely dangerous but the lower levels which donít have physical effects is still very dangerous and can cause permanent brain damage. But people donít know this and itís easier to say ĎMy kid looks fine, My kidís all right, I donít have a problem even if I live in an old homeí.

Kath MANAHAN:
But the danger isnít only in the interiors. On some homes it is on the outside too. As exterior lead based paint decays lead chips make their way into the soil where theyíre invisible. Sometimes deteriorating paint in the soil is ingested by children who come into contact with dirt while playing. Another culprit is leaded gasoline. If you drive an old car you use it. The lead in the gas is emitted into the air and eventually settles into our soils well. It is important to be aware of this danger and to test the soil around your home for the presence of lead. Another corporate pesticide for years arsenate has been used as a pesticide to help fruit ripen. The deadly pesticide seeps into the ground and remains on the fruit. Particularly grapefruit thatís why itís important to wash fruit carefully. Most municipal water supplies do not contain lead but service pipes and residential plumbing do. For mothers it is important to remember when making your babyís bottle, lead can be found in that first draw of water. Your local Health Department can answer questions about how to have your water tested for lead.

Improperly glazed pottery has been a source of lead intoxication. A Seattle couple were severely poisoned by drinking coffee day after day from their hand painted Italian mugs. They decided to market a kit so others could test ceramic dishes for lead. Testing dishes and mugs is a good idea particularly if theyíre imported from countries where lead is still used in ceramic glazes.

Dr. Steven MARCUS, MD, Director New Jersey Poison Control Centre:
We have seen people from amateur sculptors, that were doing firing of their art work, to small cottage industries that were involved in manufacturing of pottery wares, as well as all the way up to as I mentioned smelters and foundry workers and every conceivable variation on the theme in between there. People get exposed by their hobbies as well. We have taken care of people that worked on making stained glass windows, soldering the pieces in between the glass and ended up spending time on lead therapy to remove the lead they absorbed through that process. We have had people that manufacture bullets as a hobby or manufacture fishing sinkers as a hobby that got lead poisoning.

Kath MANAHAN:
Young children like Aleily Page, who we met earlier some times, get lead poisoning from eating sweet tasting paint chips. Ameilyís parents never realised the dangers from her eating paint chips. Putting non- food items in the mouth is called Pica. It is very common in children under the age of five. But the years between the age of birth and the age of three are the most important in the physical and intellectual development of the child. As a result the lead poisoning that occurs in this period can permanently damage a childís ability to learn. When Aleily was first admitted to the hospital having seizures, her blood lead level was found to be fifty times higher than the national average and about twenty times higher than the level recommended for treatment.

Dr. John GRAEF MD, Boston Childrenís Hospital:
Now if you bring lead along while a child is at the age of twelve months, thirteen, fourteen months - is learning to acquire speech - itís like putting glue in the gas tank of an engine. It will slow it down in a rather selective way in different parts of the process. Now if you continue that slowing over a period of several months, by then, by the time you came out the other end youíve already gummed up the learning process for that child. And as far as we know this is an irreversible gumming. Itís not something you can turn the clock back on.

Dr. Steven MARCUS, MD, Director New Jersey Poison Control Centre:
Lead interfering with brain functioning during that period of time interferes with that whole acquisition of language and the closest link to future intelligence is acquisition of language. So you have a double whammy. You have a child that is undergoing a tremendous amount of development during that period of time. He is also at the stage where he explores his environment with his mouth. Therefore he is more likely to put something into his mouth and if thereís lead around he is more likely to put lead into his mouth, and then get more damaged at the time where he is undergoing this incredible amount of development, so that the child is at a tremendous risk of future retardation, because of that little window of vulnerability between about one year and three years of age.

Kath MANAHAN:
Dr. Marcus adds that lead is accumulated the longer it is in a childís system the more likely it will cause damage. As a result the lead one ingests as a child stays with that person and continues to expose the body for at least Twenty to Thirty years.

Dr. Steven MARCUS, MD, Director New Jersey Poison Control Centre:
All lead is too much lead. There is not a single body system, there is not a single enzyme within the human body for that matter any animal that I know of that requires lead. Lead is always considered a contaminant. There is just about no level of lead that any individual can have that we cannot demonstrate that it is causing some problem.

Kath MANAHAN:
After lead is ingested or inhaled it makes its way into the blood where it is most accessible to the rest of the body and where it does the most damage. Eventually lead makes its way into the bones and there itís stored sometimes for years undetected. During pregnancy a womanís hormones can cause the lead in her bones to mobilise and re-enter the blood stream, where it is easily passed to the unborn child through the umbilical cord. A babyís blood lead level will reflect its mothers. If the motherís lead level is significant at this crucial stage of a babyís development there is a good possibility the child will suffer a birth defect.

Michael WEITZMAN, MD, Boston City Hospital:
There is often a question about what exactly is lead poisoning and how detrimental it is to children. I think it is important that people recognise that as weíve become more sophisticated over the past two to three decades, people have realised that there are a wide range of effects of lead poisoning and probably no level of lead is safe for children. There is an unfortunate tendency and it is easy to understand why it exists, to over simplify the lead problem, and then think of it exclusively in terms of IQ points. People have demonstrated fairly conclusively a wide range of dysfunctional behaviours that go along with lead poisoning, so that I think we trivialise the problem when we think of it merely in terms of IQ Points. Although as parents none of us want our children to loose two to six IQ points, which some studies have demonstrated can be the effect of even low levels of lead exposure.

David BELLINGER, Ph.D., Harvard Medical School:
The teachers rated the higher lead children as being more distractable in the classroom, less able to follow directions, more impulsive, higher frequency of daydreaming, really the kinds of factors that had to do with the childís ability to pay attention.

Kath MANAHAN:
Moodiness, hyper activity, emotional disturbances, alteration disorders, are all potential signs of lead poisoning in young children. In older children delinquency and learning disabilities are possible indications of lead in the blood. Severe symptoms of lead toxicity, clumsiness, fatigue, pallor, loss of appetite, loss of muscle coordination, weakness, abdominal pain, persistent vomiting, constipation and loss of consciousness can be seen in children and adults.

Dr. John ROSEN, MD, Albert Einstein College of Medicine:
I think it is very important to understand that lead per say at the concentrations that we are seeing even at very low concentrations which are even barely measurable has the capacity of irrevocably impairing that child for life and I think that this is absolutely, totally unacceptable in the United States.

Dr. Michael WEITZMAN, MD, Boston City Hospital:
I think that one of the great tragedies in regard to childrenís health in the United States is that we have an enormous environmental problem with lead poisoning of children who live in urban communities, and unlike a variety of other problems the children are at risk for there is no primary prevention for children with lead poisoning that I am aware of in the United States. There is whatever exists for caring for children with lead poisoning is triggered, once the child becomes poisoned so that the child has to be injured before anybody does anything for the child.

David BELLINGER, Ph.D, Harvard Medical School:
We know where the lead is. We know what the pathways of exposure are for the children, and we know that the current levels of exposure received by a large percentage of children are unacceptable. But I think now attention is shifting to going out and identifying where the lead is before it gets into the children and trying to prevent the initial exposure rather than trying to limit toxicity once exposure has occurred.

Excess exposure to lead is a national problem. It does occur more frequently in the inner city area. I think to blame parents for inadequate supervision or for allowing their children to get lead poisoned is simply a case of blaming the victim. The lead is there. We know where it is, and it is really societies responsibility to go out and clean it up before it wreaks any more havoc. Ití is an equal opportunity toxicant, it doesnít just effect lower class children, middle class children are vulnerable as well.

Kath MANAHAN:
If your child is sick from lead poisoning chances are you are too. It is important to get medical attention right away other wise you are risking serious health problems.

In adults symptoms of lead poisoning and toxicity can present themselves as loss of libido, hypertension, infertility, miscarriage, kidney failure, and even damage to the central nervous system. The ideal blood lead level is of course zero. It is important for us to be informed about the symptoms and dangers of lead poisoning. It is important to recognise lead poisoning as a growing national health hazard that effects all of us young and old. It is also important that we realise that proper treatment is available. Once this treatment is started it is essential that the source of lead is uncovered. Again youíre local Health Department can help with soil and paint analysis and recommend ways for the safe removal. The symptoms can be silent but the dangers of lead poisoning are no secret.

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