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General Introduction to Lead Toxicity

did you know? Since the early 1990 many industries have begun to substitute products made from lead with non-toxic alternatives made from Bismuth. 

excerpts from various sources

Lead poisoning:  From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

“Lead poisoning (also known as plumbism, colica pictorum, saturnism, Devon colic, or painter's colic) is a type of metal poisoning and a medical condition in humans and other vertebrates caused by increased levels of the heavy metal lead in the body.

Lead interferes with a variety of body processes and is toxic to many organs and tissues including the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys, andreproductive and nervous systems. “


“It interferes with the development of the nervous system and is therefore particularly toxic to children, causing potentially permanent learning and behavior disorders. Symptoms include abdominal pain, confusion, headache, anemia, irritability, and in severe cases seizures, coma, and death.”

“Routes of exposure to lead include contaminated air, water, soil, food, and consumer products. Occupational exposure is a common cause of lead poisoning in adults. According to estimates made by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), more than 3 million workers in the United States are potentially exposed to lead in the workplace.”



“Lead exposure damages cells in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory. Hippocampi of lead-exposed rats (bottom) show structural damage such as irregular nuclei (IN) and denaturation of myelin(DNS) compared to controls (top).”


“Lead interferes with the release of neurotransmitters, chemicals used byneurons to send signals to other cells. It interferes with the release ofglutamate, a neurotransmitter important in many functions including learning, by blocking NMDA receptors. “

“The targeting of NMDA receptors is thought to be one of the main causes for lead's toxicity to neurons. A Johns Hopkins University report found that in addition to inhibiting the NMDA receptor, lead exposure decreased the amount of the gene for the receptor in part of the brain. In addition, lead has been found in animal studies to cause programmed cell death in brain cells.”



“Outcome is related to the extent and duration of lead exposure. Effects of lead on the physiology of the kidneys and blood are generally reversible; its effects on the central nervous system are not. While peripheral effects in adults often go away when lead exposure ceases, evidence suggests that most of lead's effects on a child's central nervous system are irreversible.Children with lead poisoning may thus have adverse health, cognitive, and behavioral effects that follow them into adulthood.”



“Lead encephalopathy is a medical emergency and causes permanent brain damage in 70–80% of children affected by it, even those that receive the best treatment.” The mortality rate for people who develop cerebral involvement is about 25%, and of those who survive who had lead encephalopathy symptoms by the time chelation therapy was begun, about 40% have permanent neurological problems such as cerebral palsy.”


“Exposure to lead may also decrease lifespan and have health effects in the long term. Death rates from a variety of causes have been found to be higher in people with elevated blood lead levels; these include cancer, stroke, and heart disease, and general death rates from all causes. Lead is considered a possible human carcinogen based on evidence from animal studies. Evidence also suggests that age-related mental decline and psychiatric symptoms are correlated with lead exposure. Cumulative exposure over a prolonged period may have a more important effect on some aspects of health than recent exposure. Some health effects, such as high blood pressure, are only significant risks when lead exposure is prolonged (over about one year).”


“With the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, lead poisoning became common in the work setting.  The introduction of lead paint for residential use in the 19th century increased childhood exposure to lead; for millennia before this, most lead exposure had been occupational.  An important step in the understanding of childhood lead poisoning occurred when toxicity in children from lead paint was recognized in Australia in 1897.

“France, Belgium, and Austria banned white lead interior paints in 1909; the League of Nations followed suit in 1922. However, in the United States, laws banning lead house paint were not passed until 1971, and it was phased out and not fully banned until 1978.”


lead is one of the best researched subjects of toxicology

('On Lead Poisoning' 1872)

quoted from

selected excerpts from


by Dr. Herbert L. Needleman

"Lead poisoning is an environmental disease, ... Lead is one of the best-studied toxic substances, and as a result we know more about the adverse health effects of lead than virtually any other chemical. The health problems caused by lead have been well documented over a wide range of exposures on every continent. ... We clearly know how it gets into the body and the harm it causes once it is ingested, and most importantly, how to prevent it! "

Early History

"Lead’s toxicity was recognized and recorded as early as 2000 BC and the widespread use of leadhas been a cause of endemic chronic plumbism in several societies throughout history. The Greek philosopher Nikander of Colophon in 250 BC reported on the colic and anemia resulting from lead poisoning. Hippocrates related gout to the food and wine, though the association between gout and lead poisoning was not recognized during this period ( 450-380 BC). Later during the Roman period, gout was prevalent among the upper classes of Roman society and is believed to be a result of the enormous lead intake. "

"There were recordings of Roman wine being banned by German tribes because of the sickness which resulted. Surprisingly, many doctors of that period prescribed preparations of mercury or litharge itself to cure colic! "

Poorly glazed pottery used to store beers and wines resulted in chronic colic outbreaks in Germany when the lead leached out into the brew. Even today, some wine seals are made of lead and some leaded crystal decanters can leach lead into the liquor. One of America’ s first public health laws was to ban the use of leaded coils due to the health problems it caused to people who drank the spirits.

In colonial America, the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned lead from being added to wine and cider. leaded (in 1825, 21 million liters of port was consumed in England). Poorly glazed pottery used to store beers and wines resulted in chronic colic outbreaks in Germany when the lead leached out into the brew. Even today, some wine seals are made of lead and some leaded crystal decanters can leach lead into the liquor."


"But it is not just liquor products where lead can turn up. In Hungary, in 1994, a major health problem occurred when red oxide lead was mixed into paprika to brighten the color of the spice. Research has shown that stone mills, which have lead pieces, can result in putting lead particles into the flour. Lead has shown up in milk where cows have grazed on grasses growing in soil with large lead accumulations from either industrial waste or heavy auto traffic. Weather lead is puffed onto a 18 th century noble’s’ wig in the form of white lead litharge, innocently drunk with wine made from grapes grown near a busy highway, or added as a filler to ice cream being sold in India, man seems to create unusual pathways for lead to enter the human system.”


Occupational Hazards

"In the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries the worst outbreaks of lead poisoning of adults were occupational in origin. It became common knowledge that to work in an industry where you handled lead was certain to make you sick or worse. These workers absorbed lead from inhalation of fine lead dust or fumes, contamination of food eaten at the workplace, or by absorption through the skin. "

"Charles Dickens describes in his essay "Star of the East" the horrible effects of lead poisoning on women who work in London’s infamous white lead mills, " her brain is coming out her ear and it hurts her dreadful...".

"Benjamin Franklin in 1763 wrote about the "dry gripes" (colic) and "dangles" (wrist drop) which affected tinkers, painters, and typesetters."

“Lead’s hazards to the reproductive process have been known for at least a century. British factory inspectors at the turn of the twentieth century noted that women who were exposed to lead through working in the cottage ceramic industry tended to be barren and that children who were born to those women were often short-lived. In most western countries during the 1930’s through the 1970’s, awareness among health workers was associated with more lead poisoning cases being reported, and laws protecting workers were being enacted."


"Today, occupational exposure to lead remains a big problem in developing countries. Occupational lead exposure is likely unregulated in these countries with little monitoring of poisoning being done. What has become a grow ing concern among health officials is the prevalence of home-based cottage industries in these countries. These cottage industries are located in the where large numbers of people live, especially children. They are of particular concern since these non-regulated businesses deliver the lead right into the homes or yards where children live or play. where children live or play."


"Alice Hamilton of Harvard Medical School, a pioneer in the study of occupational diseases and a recognized expert in lead poisoning, spoke briefly at the hearings to review TEL: " I would like to emphasize one or two points that have been brought out. One is the fact that lead is a slow and cumulative poison and that it does not usually produce striking symptoms that are easily recognized."


Role of Lead and Behavioral Toxicology

"Behavioral toxicology, the study of chemical toxicants and their influence on brain function, is a young field. The notion that a chemical can affect the brain and that the earliest expression of toxicity could be found in altered behavior, thinking, or mood is not new; it was voiced at least 2000 years ago by the Greek Dioscerides when he wrote, ...

"Lead makes the mind give way."


(from) Printing Presses and Type Setting
By Michael McCann, PhD, CIH

Recently, I have seen a number of printmaking studios purchasing old mechanized printing presses for relief printing.  One example is a Vandercook proofing letterpress that uses lead type and oil-based relief inks. There are a number of hazards associated with these mechanized presses that are not found with normal printmaking presses, including getting caught in the moving rollers and the potential lead hazard from the type.