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North Americans Bombarded by Lead, According to Research Scientists

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

(Kim Britten/Shutterstock)

Like most adults who have been lead poisoned, I didn’t notice any symptoms. I was flagged by my naturopath eight years ago because a blood sample indicated I had mild to moderately decreased kidney function, a sign of heavy metal toxicity. After taking a urine heavy metal challenge test in 2014, I tested negative for toxic metals—except lead. My lead levels were off the charts.

After some research, I concluded the lead came from breathing air emissions from the pulp and paper plant two blocks from where I lived for the first 18 years of my life in northern Ontario. I had no idea, until I encountered Tamara Rubin’s (Lead Safe Mama) research, that most North American residents are constantly being bombarded by lead in their everyday lives, not only from air particulates but from paint chips, contaminated soil, water pipes, and lead-glazed pottery and China. Even some foods are known to contain high quantities of this known carcinogen.

Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a physician currently studying environmental neurotoxins, such as lead, for the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada said “All of us to some degree probably suffer from lead toxicity,” when interviewed in Rubin’s documentary “MisLEAD: America’s Secret Epidemic.” We can only hope to minimize our exposures by carefully monitoring the products we use, the foods we eat, and the places we inhabit.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been addressing the issue for decades but acknowledged that high levels of lead in processed baby food remain a threat to children’s healthy development. On Jan.24 the FDA released draft guidelines for industry “to help reduce potential health effects in this vulnerable population from dietary exposure to lead.” The FDA states that it will require that the industry “strive for continual reduction of this contaminant.”

The amount of lead it takes to poison a child is so minuscule that it’s not even detectable with the naked eye. Lead poisoning expert, Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and epidemiologist, and professor of environmental and public health at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York, said in Rubin’s film that, “Lead can damage children even at the lowest levels of exposure.

There is no such thing as a safe level of lead. Parents have to take lead very seriously.”

Rubin lists on her website that the symptoms of lead poisoning in a child may be subtle in the beginning, and resemble an extended cold or flu, attention deficit disorder (with or without hyperactivity), obsessive-compulsive disorder, or a behavioral condition. In the short term, the symptoms may progress to include tiredness or loss of energy, irritability or crankiness, reduced attention span, poor appetite, weight loss, trouble sleeping, constipation, aches or pains in the stomach, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, hearing or comprehension issues.

And in the long term, the symptoms may include brain damage, I.Q. loss, behavior and learning problems, impaired speech and language, learning disabilities, slowed growth, kidney and liver damage, sensory processing disorder, a cluster of symptoms similar to autism, violent outbursts, and a compromised immune system.

Although the risk factors for adults are not as significant as growing children, lead poisoning can cause high blood pressure, kidney problems, and faster cognitive decline, Joel Schwartz professor of Environmental Epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in Rubin’s film.

While exploring Rubin’s website, the first thing that jumped out at me was a short video featuring an antique Pyrex mixing bowl—an exact replica of the bowl I had been using to make salads, stir up my cookie batters, and mash potatoes for over ten years. The beautiful turquoise bowl tested at 189,000 parts per million(ppm), for lead—even though it seemed to be in perfect condition—no cracks, chips, or faded colors—just like mine. Ugh!

Rubin uses an X–ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry analyzer—a scientific instrument used by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to test consumer goods for metallic toxicants, including lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic, which are measured in ppm. Test results for many of the thousands of products she has tested are freely available on her Lead Safe Mama website.

I had also been using a set of decorative Corelle dishes and mugs for thirty years. I was not aware, that the company itself had recommended its customers only use its patterned dishes from more than 15 years ago “as decorative pieces” because of their lead content. That message was posted on Rubin’s website. Double ugh! Recently Corelle’s new parent company, Instant Brands, is trying to backtrack about the potential dangers of those products.

I had also been using a colorful Corning Ware casserole dish, inherited from my mother, which was well-worn and faded. A similar model tested at 29,700 ppm with Rubin’s XRF. She suggests using plain and simple dishware, cookware, and pottery—without any fancy designs or colors which could contain high levels of lead.

Rubin has posted thousands of pictures of objects (more than 3,500 as of the publishing of this article) on her website along with the heavy metal content readings for each item. It’s certainly an eye-opener. A recent article on NPR states that:

“Lead paint is regularly found in vintage items more than 40 years old, but sales of these items aren’t regulated, and many buyers aren’t aware of the threat the neurotoxin poses when they bring second-hand finds into their homes … State health department websites for Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska warn about the dangers of lead in hand-me-down furniture, old ceramics, and antique toys.”

I was happy to discover that my Anchor glass storage and mixing bowls, my modern clear glass Pyrex baking dish, my Arzberg white ceramic dinner plates, and cups, and my Paderno frying pan came out to acceptable levels. At least I have something left in my kitchen.

Until I watched Rubin’s film, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a “lead industry.” I sat dumbfounded watching Noam Chomsky explain how the system works. “There have been decades of cover-up and government complicity,” Chomsky said in the film. “Government regulatory agencies are bombarded by tons of lobbyists from the corporate sector … The costs of lead poisoning are being borne by people … The profits are being made by big corporations.”

I was naïve enough to think that once a substance was discovered to be extremely toxic it would be withdrawn from circulation. This has definitely not been the case with lead.

“The government has been under extensive pressure from the lead industry,” Gerald Markowitz co-author of “Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children,” said in the film, “both to say that it’s not as toxic as it really is and the level of lead we should be concerned about should be much higher … There were million-dollar marketing campaigns in the ’30s and ’40s to promote lead paint and the lead mining companies owned the paint companies.”

Howard Mielke, a research professor at Tulane University’s School of Medicine, and a former member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board’s Lead Dust Panel estimated in the film that five tons of lead were being deposited at a single intersection every year from leaded gasoline, which was only banned worldwide for automobiles in 2021. It’s still being used in small aviation planes.

Lanphear said in the film, “Virtually all of us have been exposed to lead levels that are 10 to a hundred times higher than our preindustrial ancestors.”

Dr. Leonardo Trasande, a physician and professor at New York University, and a leader in children’s environmental health said in the film, “For the range of lead exposures that we’re seeing today, there really are no medical treatments. The need is for a broader-based prevention campaign.”

Sadly, I have never managed to get my lead levels lower than 12 on the challenge test using herbs and supplements. My highest peak was 24 in 2014. (The acceptable level—if there is one—is 2.) I live in a new condo with no lead paint. I don’t have neighbors with any old houses who might be blasting lead paint out of their homes. I don’t have a home filled with antiques.

Hopefully, the purging I did of my kitchen cupboards will result in lower lead levels shortly.

I feel there’s a need for all of us to be hyper-vigilant to protect ourselves from exposure. Watching Rubin’s film is a great first step. The FDA guidelines indicate we are moving in the right direction.

Judith Robinson is an instructor of journalism, communications and creative writing courses. An award-winning graduate of the Iowa Playwrights’ Workshop, she was a regional reporter for the Toronto Globe & Mail for seven years. In 2022, as a Senior Fellow for Children's Health Defense, she wrote and edited health-related content.

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