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06/19/2014 05:15 EDT | Updated 08/19/2014 05:59 EDT

Lead Exposure Still Exists, And It's Harming Your Health

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Lead has proven to be dangerous and lethal throughout history and though it is used in a much smaller capacity today, it remains a danger to us. Lead poisoning causes serious problems in humans and in men, specific ailments can occur from lead exposure.

A natural soft metal found in rocks and soil, lead has been used by humans for thousands of years. Its use dates back to the Bronze Age; Romans used lead pipes for their plumbing systems, lead frames held Medieval stained glass windows together, and lead even found its way into cosmetics. Roman women lightened their faces with powdered lead, as did both Elizabethan women and men. Sadly, in the name of vanity, many perished, poisoned by the toxic stuff used to make people more beautiful.

Malleable lead is a high-density element with a low melting point that makes it very useful in industries like construction and plumbing. The heavy metal is also used in batteries, bullets, and solder; paint, PVC, and x-ray bibs to block radiation.

Like the mineral asbestos that was used in construction, lead is poisonous but unlike asbestos, lead can be lethal to humans and other mammals. In children, lead poisoning can delay mental and physical development, create blood and brain disorders, and reduce cognitive capability. Lead exposure in high levels can cause brain, kidney, and nervous system damage in adults, miscarriages in pregnant women, and among other things, infertility in men.

Toronto Star investigative journalist, Robert Cribb, reported last month that 13 per cent of Toronto homes show unsafe levels of lead in their drinking water. City officials estimate 40,000 homes in the Greater Toronto Area use lead pipe water service, with the highest concentrations in High Park, Lawrence Park, and downtown areas including south Annex and parts of East York.

Houses more than 40 years old will be at the highest risk of lead contamination with aging lead water pipes going into the home, and lead-based paints on interior walls. Lead poisoning can also occur from inhaling lead-contaminated soil or dust.

Men of reproductive age should pay special attention to lead exposure, as it can reduce sperm counts and affect foetal development. According to a study of semen quality in male lead smelter workers, high-level lead exposure linked to damage or dysfunction of the male reproductive system in both animal and human studies. Study subjects experienced "impaired semen quality, an increased frequency of spontaneous abortion and other adverse outcomes of pregnancies fathered by workers exposed to lead."

Lead has also been shown to alter men's personalities. Researchers in Cincinnati conducted a study using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study changes in brain structure from lead exposure during childhood. They found that higher blood lead concentrations during childhood met with significant decreases in the brain's gray matter in men compared to women. Volume loss occurred primarily in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that influences the personality, emotions, complex thinking, and regulates social behaviour. The study concludes that gray matter volume loss is consistent with higher rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and antisocial behaviours found among males.

According to a 2009-2011 Statistics Canada survey, 100 per cent of Canadians aged three to 79 had lead in their blood, men having the highest lead blood levels of all. Lead is a frightening reality for all of us, but protective measures can be taken to keep us from harm.

Tanya Klein, CEO of Anta Plumbing in Toronto, recommends reverse osmosis water filters for homes and businesses to improve water quality. Reverse osmosis purifies water by forcing it through a semi-impermeable membrane that lead and other contaminants cannot pass though.

The permanent solution to lead contamination is to replace your water service line with PEX (polyethelene tubing) or copper pipes, says Klein. But if this isn't in your budget, she offers the following preventative tips:

  • Use filtered water to make baby formula;

  • Wash fruit and vegetables in filtered water;

  • "Flush" your cold-water pipes that have been idle for six hours or more by running the water until it becomes as cold as it will get--the more time water has been sitting in your home's pipes, the more lead and other heavy metals it may contain;

  • Use only cold-water tap for drinking and cooking (hot water likely contains higher levels of lead);

  • Install a cartridge-less filter to your water supply pipe in your house.

For more information on how to keep you and your current or future family safe from lead exposure, please see this Government of Canada web page and err on the side of safety.

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