Lead is a soft, pliable metal used in a number of industrial applications. Lead is a neuro-toxic metal when consumed, causing harmful effects when inhaled or otherwise absorbed into the body.
The lead atom.
Lead is not a new discovery, and has been used in various applications for millennia. Everything from tribal necklaces to Roman water pipes to English musket balls have been made out of lead or lead alloys. Its toxic characteristics have been noted almost since the development of organized medicine, and it’s not undue to think that humans have known about lead poisoning even earlier than this. Benjamin Franklin famously noted the danger of lead in a letter to a young friend of his, and recent forensic studies have determined that Beethoven died of lead poisoning, lead being found in a great deal of the wine at the time. That said, lead’s usefulness has generally outweighed its hazard, and even today it is used in a number of industrial applications that value it’s pliability, density and conductivity.
Ludwig von Beethoven, a casualty of lead poisoning. If only he had listened to Benjamin Franklin…
Lead’s danger stems from its ability to mimic molecules that the human body uses in the course of normal metabolic function. Lead itself has no nutritional value and does not appear to have any function in the human body. Once lead has been introduced into the body, it disrupts a number of important functions, most notably neurotransmission, although symptoms such as anemia, constipation, kidney failure and hypertension may also be present.
Lead is particularly dangerous to children, who seem to be at much greater risk than the adult population, and require much lower proportional doses in order to show symptoms of poisoning. Significant developmental deficits may be created as a result of lead intake, and early exposure to lead has been suggested as a cause for future behavior such as learning disabilities, schizophrenia and, strangely enough, violent crime.
Lead paint peels in a characteristic “scaly” pattern.
Today, the majority of lead poisoning relates to children who have eaten paint chips or contaminated soil. Lead and many of its alloys actually have a sweet taste, which explains why a child might consume such a large amount of what is usually an inedible item. Lead paint inspires the majority of concerns about lead toxicity. However, about 20% of lead poisoning cases in the US are derived from lead and lead-alloyed pipes. Most recently, a number of imported products from China have been found to contain high levels of lead and caused a slate of lead poisoning cases throughout the United States and the world.