Effects of lead poisoning

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Lead in the inorganic form, as in lead salts, causes a range of effects depending on the amount. General effects on the gastrointestinal tract lead to pain (colic), constipation, and diarrhoea; vomiting can also occur. There are sometimes pains in the joints (gout), and weakness in the arms or legs or hands (hence 'wrist drop') resulting from effects on the nerves. Headache and blindness are sometimes symptoms, as well as mental disturbances which in severe cases can reach insanity. Chronic exposure will cause damage and dysfunction of the kidney, leading to nephritis and possible kidney failure.

Lead distributes into the red blood cells in the body and consequently causes damage there, interfering very specifically with the means by which haemoglobin is synthesized in red blood cells. This leads to a loss of haemoglobin and therefore of functioning red cells which need haemoglobin to carry oxygen. The lack of red cells is called anaemia and contributes to tiredness, listlessness, and a pale appearance. Fortunately, this effect is reversible once the exposure is reduced, but the effect on the kidney, peripheral nephritis, is more serious and may not be reversible.

Lead poisoning can be readily detected and once detected it can be treated. It can be detected in a number of ways, from simply measuring the amount of lead present in the body to measuring specific biochemical markers (biomarkers) in the blood, for example. The metabolic disturbances involved in the interference with the production of haemoglobin can be used for diagnostic tests. Treatment of lead poisoning is by removal of the source of lead and possibly the use of chelating agents which bind to and remove the lead from the body (except the bone) by allowing it to be eliminated into the urine.

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