Lead Toxicity

What happened (and continues to happen) in Flint Michigan is a pox on humanity. I was under the impression that lead exposure had been mostly resolved in this country. But, now I hear of potential toxicity problems in Ohio cities and many work environments. In the past, most lead exposures was due to lead based paints used in the early and mid 20th century. Then I realized that since we live in areas of historical homes that the potential for exposure still exists. If you are not familiar with the potential hazards, I will share with you my experience with lead toxicities.


The first case I was exposed to was in veterinary school clinical rounds. The dog was presented with abdominal pain and diarrhea and vomiting. He was very ill, had not eaten in several days, and was admitted to the hospital’s isolation unit. Distemper was suspected. Blood tests were run to confirm the diagnosis. While waiting for results, he started to have “chewing gum” or ‘“chomping” seizures. In this form of seizure the dog salivates profusely and uncontrollably and incessantly bites or chatters. Now the potential for Rabies creeped in. The seizures were minimally controlled with medications. The tests came back negative as the patient continued to deteriorate.The abdomen became even more painful and lead blood levels were run. The levels were extremely elevated, treatment was started.

This is a chelation therapy where a chemical is injected that binds the lead and then is excreted out through the kidneys.  The response was poor, probably because of permanent brain damage, and euthanasia was finally elected.  

After graduation and over the next five years I diagnosed three more cases, of which one was treated successfully, and the other two died. Since then I have not diagnosed another case and I assumed the national effort to rid the environment of lead was successful, until the headlines hit in the last few months.

I described my first case graphically to emphasize the difficulty of diagnosis and the horror of the poisoning. These are acute toxicosis, meaning a large amount of lead was ingested over a short period, leading to life threatening consequences. In all the cases I mentioned the origin of the poisonings were from chewing on objects painted with lead based paints. So, obviously the first line of prevention is to not allow your pet (usually a puppy) to chew on old painted wood.

If you live in a newer home, this is not a problem. Other sources of lead include: car batteries, linoleum, solder, plumbing materials, putty, tar paper, lead fishing sinkers, and drapery weights, to name a few. Beware of toys and other painted objects imported from Asian countries as their inspection standards are not as stringent as ours.

The tragedy in Flint and other cities is that they are dealing with children that have low level chronic exposures. These kids do not get acutely ill; Instead, they have low level lead deposition in their nervous systems resulting in permanent damage leading to such problems as learning and behavioural disabilities. This is the immediate problem facing these areas. In the future, these communities are faced with rehabilitation and the lifetime care of these children.  

This is a terrible and frustrating tragedy. It should not have happened. Human and Veterinary medicine has made great strides in preventative medical care over the last 50 years, and the last thing we need are some stupid politicians screwing up these advancements and destroying a community.  


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