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QUESTION: Can lead poisoning in a child cause problems with the immune system? 11/05/11 Kentucky, USA - United States of America

Can lead poisoning in a child cause problems with the immune system?

ANSWER: May 11 2011

Dear Madam,

the simple answer is yes, but the problem is that many other things can cause problems with the immune system, so the only way to determine if lead is the cause is to ask the doctor to do a blood lead test.

The next step is to understand what the blood lead result means and how to respond to it. Some US state or county health departments provide home lead assessment and advice to the parents if the blood lead result is above 5 micrograms per decilitre. Others respond to higher levels but The LEAD Group recommends that everyone with a blood lead level above 2 micrograms per decilitre should have their home/work environment and habits investigated for lead sources and pathways, and have those sources removed / change habits, in conjunction with nutritional intervention and education and follow-up until the blood lead level is re-tested and found to be below 2 micrograms per decilitre. I can send you our nutrition info in a separate email.

As for sources of information about lead's effects on the immune system, interestingly, none are mentioned in our recent fact sheets about health impacts for blood lead levels below 10 micrograms per decilitre see:

 So its possible that most of the immune function findings are for blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per decilitre.

For instance, the attached Freeman Chronic lead poisoning in children: A review of 90 children diagnosed in Sydney, 1948-1967 Abstract. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health Volume 5, Issue 1, pages 27–35, March 1969, and Med J Aust. 1970 Mar 28;1(13):648-51. is a study of 90 children admitted to two hospitals in Sydney Australia between the years 1948 and 1967, who were eventually diagnosed with lead poisoning. Eleven of the 90 children died and 40 other children admitted to the two hospitals with a possible diagnosis of lead poisoning were excluded from the study because their diagnoses were not certain, so it is fairly clear that the blood lead levels of the 90 children were very high. Freeman states:


...Infection was not an uncommon mode of presentation and sometimes precipitated an acute encephalopathy."

Table IV shows that 11 of the 90 children presented with Infection, that is, were hospitalised due to infection.

Freeman also states:

"In 4 children with lead encephalopathy, the diagnosis [of lead poisoning] was only made at autopsy."

The attached K.P. Mishra Lead exposure and its impact on immune system: a review Abstract. Toxicology in Vitro. Volume 23, Issue 6, September 2009, Pages 969–972 is a 2009 review of the subject and Mishra states:

"Heavy metal exposure may develop autoimmunity as well as immunotoxicity. Autoimmune diseases are those in which an individual’s own immune system attacks one or more tissues or organs resulting in functional impairment, inflammation and sometimes-permanent tissue damage...."

Mishra also states:

"lead can aggravate neurological disease by increasing the immunogenicity of nervous system proteins."

I hope this helps. I'd be glad to give more specific advice if you supply the child's age, age of house and blood lead result and any information you have on symptoms and sources of lead exposure.

Yours Sincerely

Elizabeth O'Brien

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