Health

This Is What Happens To Humans When They Are Exposed To Too Much Lead

CREDIT: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Genetha Campbell carries free water being distributed at the Lincoln Park United Methodist Church in Flint, Mich, February 3, 2015.

In his State of the State address Tuesday night, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder apologized for his handling of the Flint water crisis, which has left tens of thousands of residents without drinkable water. “To you, the people of Flint, I say tonight as I have before, I’m sorry and I will fix it,” Snyder said near the beginning of his speech. “Government failed you at the federal, state and local level.”

But an apology doesn’t change the health effects that Flint residents are seeing as a result of the elevated levels of lead in their water — effects they may continue to see far into the future.

The change in the city’s water supply has already been recognized as a possible source for a recent outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease, which claimed the lives of ten people between June 2014 and November 2015.

Here are some of the other long-lasting effects that lead exposure may have on Flint residents:

Harm to Children’s Development

Four percent of the children in Flint have greater than five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (ug/dL) in their bloodstreams, which is considered unsafe under current guidelines.

Infants and children exposed to lead may suffer in various ways, including delayed puberty, speech impairment, high blood pressure, hearing loss, decreased muscle and bone growth, kidney damage, and a weakened immune system. Breastfed infants are also at risk if there is lead in their mother’s bloodstreams.

Equally important, lead also affects children’s brains and nervous systems. Those exposed to lead at a young age may suffer from a coma, convulsions, or even death. Children who survive serious lead poisoning may be left with mental retardation and changes in behavior, like a shortened attention span or increased antisocial behavior.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), lead exposure contributes to about 600,000 new cases of children with intellectual disabilities every year. A recent study of children aged six to 17 also found that lead exposure increases symptoms in some people with ADHD. Even low exposure to lead as a child could cause lower IQ well into adulthood — and this may be irreversible. One study of the relationship between children’s blood lead concentration and their test performance found that for every 1 ug/dL increase in blood lead concentration, there was a 0.7 point decrease in mean arithmetic scores, an approximately one point decrease in mean reading scores, a 0.5 point decrease in mean nonverbal reasoning scores, and a 0.5 point decrease in mean short-term memory scores.

Reproductive Problems

For women, greater lead exposure may lead to a higher likelihood of miscarriage and stillbirth. The body stores lead in the teeth and bones over time, and when a woman is pregnant, that lead may be released into her bloodstream, putting fetuses at risk. Washington, D.C. had a similar water crisis from 2000 to 2004, and stillbirths in the city peaked in 2001, when lead levels in the water were at their highest.

Men exposed to lead, meanwhile, may have lower sperm counts, increased abnormal sperm, and erectile dysfunction.

Greater Risk Of Developing Cancer

While the link between lead exposure and cancer still needs to be further analyzed, there have been some studies showing a correlation between the two. In particular, those exposed to lead may be at higher risk for lung and stomach cancers. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have all determined that lead probably causes cancer.

Digestive & Cardiovascular Issues

Lead exposure can have a variety of short-term digestive effects, like loss of appetite, nausea, constipation, diarrhea, indigestion, and stomach cramps. Adults and children exposed to lead may also be at risk of more serious long-term problems, like high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Compromised Nervous Systems

Exposure to lead can affect the nervous system of both adults and children, interrupting how the brain interacts with the rest of the body. Those affected may suffer from muscle weakness, loss of sensation, lack of coordination, and pain, tingling and numbness in the limbs. Lead exposure may also reduce nervous system performance, and it may cause weakness in fingers, wrists, and ankles.

Kidney Damage

Lead exposure can cause long-term kidney damage in both adults and children. Inflammation of the kidneys and abnormal kidney function have occurred after short-term exposure in adults with blood lead levels of 40 ug/dL or more. Adults and children with blood lead levels of 60 ug/dL may also suffer from long-term kidney damage severe enough to cause death.