What is lead poisoning, particularly dangerous for children and pregnant women?

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What is lead poisoning, particularly dangerous for children and pregnant women?
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Lead poisoning, as the name suggests, is characterised by elevated levels of lead in the body. It is particularly dangerous for children, pregnant women and their unborn babies. Lead gets into the body via the respiratory passageways, the digestive system or the blood. Even in small doses, it can cause serious and irreversible problems. 

What are the causes?

There are multiple sources of lead contamination:

  • lead paint present in old buildings (which were built before 1949)
  • tap water, depending on the age of the pipes, which can be lined with lead
  • the air: gas emissions from vehicles with lead fuels, which still exist in some countries
  • artisanal cosmetics such as khôl
  • pottery with lead enamels
  • cigarettes

Who are the most affected?

Everyone who is exposed to lead is concerned, but the danger is greatest for:
  • pregnant women: lead poisoning can lead to miscarriage or premature birth. The baby is also at risk of intoxication during the pregnancy
  • children under the age of 6
  • people who work in industries that use lead, such as scientists working with metals
  • people who live close to such industries

What are the health consequences?

In adults:

  • cardiac and renal problems, high blood pressure and reduced fertility can occur in the cases of chronic intoxication
  • appearance of a bluish line on the gums in the most serious cases
  • death, if the exposure is very intense
  • increase in the risk of miscarriage or premature birth

In young children, foetuses and embryos:

  • reduction in cognitive and intellectual capacities (lowered IQ, etc.)
  • language problems (e.g., dyslexia)
  • behaviour problems
  • stunted or delayed growth

What are the symptoms?

The signs of lead poisoning are not easy to detect. There are no visible signs, although it can be easily diagnosed with a blood test or a urine sample prescribed by a doctor. It can manifest via the following symptoms:
  • Headaches or stomach aches
  • Behaviour problems (loss of attention, poor sleep, irritability, etc.)
  • Fatigue
  • Digestive problems (constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, etc.)

Sources: La santé pour tous, Ameli and Passeport Santé.

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