What is it?
Lead poisoning (IPb) is caused by the accumulation of lead in the blood. This heavy metal is very toxic to human health and causes serious and sometimes irreversible sequelae. It represents a risk mainly for young children, whose psychomotor development it affects. Lead exposure is a major public health issue. According to WHO, it causes 600,000 new cases of intellectual disability in children every year worldwide and 143,000 deaths, half of them in South-East Asia. The lead poisoning would affect some 85 000 children under 6 in France.
Symptoms of Saturnism
Lead poisoning is often silent and its clinical manifestations are very non-specific, so that lead poisoning is not always diagnosed: fatigue and general weakness, headaches and memory loss, digestive disorders (constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and anorexia), behavioral disorders (apathy, irritability, loss of attention and sleep).
Clinical manifestations are directly related to the amount and duration of the exposure. Chronic intoxication with prolonged exposure to lead can lead to anemia, high blood pressure, heart and kidney problems and reduced fertility. A bluish line appears on the gums in the most serious cases. Exposure at very high doses may result in death.
Embryos, fetuses and young children are particularly exposed to lead poisoning. Even low exposure levels can have irreversible consequences on their cognitive abilities. Intoxicated children have a diminished intelligence quotient, a low ability to maintain their attention, and suffer from impaired behavior and dyslexia. As a result, they often find themselves in school failure.
Lead is very harmful to the health of the pregnant woman and her fetus. It increases the risk of preterm birth and abortion, and causes irreversible growth and cognitive delays in the developing fetus.
The origins of the disease
Lead has no known physiological role in humans, says Inserm. After contamination by the digestive, respiratory or blood (between the mother and the fetus), it diffuses into the blood and tissues, then settles in the bones of the skeleton.
Risk factors for Saturnism
There are many sources of lead contamination: the exhaust gases of leaded motor vehicles, lead residues from industrial production transiting through water, air and soil, and so on. They mainly expose workers in heavy industry, construction and the automobile industry.
Children from underprivileged neighborhoods who are poorly housed are also very exposed to their places of life. The main sources of contamination are lead paint found in dilapidated and unhealthy homes, where children will ingest chips. Lead pipes used in water distribution systems are also involved.
Prevention and treatment of Saturnism
Extensive health programs aim to eliminate sources of lead. In France, as in other developed countries, the sources of strong exposures have been considerably reduced since the nineties, in industry and in housing.
The diagnosis is made by measuring the amount of lead in the blood (blood lead) or in the urine (leaduria). Once an intoxicated person is identified, it is a question of identifying and eliminating the potential sources of intoxication in his usual places of life.
In severe cases, a chelation treatment can evacuate part of the lead in the body. This can reduce or completely eliminate some symptoms, but not restore impaired cognitive function in the child or fetus.