The benefits of using lead in various industries were discovered long before it became known as an urgent public health crisis in later years. It was found that a lead additive to gasoline could increase an engine’s performance, raising the fuel economy of vehicles in contrast to gas without lead additives. It was used in household products, even as an interior wall paint for residential homes. The possibilities of the use of lead in industry were almost endless.
However, as with the increase of most uses of a particular substance, trends and patterns were picked up on by those who are charged with monitoring health. Public health officials, doctors, and medical professionals began to notice a recurring symptomology in people in close proximity to lead contaminants. Symptoms ranging from reproductive system dysfunction to neuromuscular problems to even mental health issues began to appear in these seemingly healthy populations. Slowly, awareness of lead levels in communities increased and was measured as a way to understand how prevalent it was in our environment.
To combat these health problems, local, state, and federal agencies began to control the substance through regulation and phasing out use. The lead additives introduced to car engines in the first half of the 1900s began to be phased out due to the actions of the Environmental Protection Agency, the use of the catalytic converter in cars, and local and state intervention. Opportunities of exposure to lead were being drastically reduced from the environment as a result of the awareness of the health problems it was causing.
Lead contaminants found on household painted walls would have to be removed, or covered, so they would not be absorbed through tissue. Lead additives were no longer used in gas, therefore eliminating the possibility of breathing in lead contaminants from the exhaust pipes of cars with combustion engines. Also, some other interesting links were found as lead levels went down. Crime rates went down, too. In fact, in an article in the August 2012 edition of the journal Environment International, researchers Howard Mielke and Sammy Zahran discuss the correlation between lead exposure and crime rates in six different cities. This leads to some interesting questions about the connections between lead exposure and its impact on the individual, as the individual commits the crime that is measured in crime rates.
While lead poisoning has a greater impact on the developing minds of children, adults can be impacted, too. The CDC lists symptoms such as abdominal pain, constipation, depression, easily distracted, memory problems, easily irritable, and feeling sick from long-term lead exposure. Lead, as a molecule, is similar to calcium, and when in the body and brain, can do lots of damage. According to a research article in PLOS Medicine titled Decreased Brain Volume in Adults with Childhood Lead Exposure, lead contributed to a loss of grey matter in the prefrontal cortex in the children they studied. Grey matter is the very stuff our brains are made up of that make us think, and our prefrontal cortex is in charge of our higher thinking processes, including aggression. This reduction of grey matter as a result of lead toxicity in children was leading to increased aggression as they grew to adulthood.
Lead exposure can cause some serious neurological side effects. It is important to note that childhood exposure has been measured. However, it is interesting to note the lack of research on the neurological side effects of lead exposure happening to adults. There is not much information available on this for the reason that no routes for lead exposure are allowed, except for a few possibilities.
While most industries have virtually eliminated lead from their use, hazardous materials cleaning does include lead exposure. And one particularly interesting pathway to lead exposure might not be fully explored, the bullet. Lead exposure from a fired bullet occurs as the bullet is pushed from the casing, the gunpowder ignition causes a small amount of lead to boil. In a poorly ventilated area with boiled led, standing in that cloud of boiled lead can result in lead poisoning. Go to the same poorly ventilated firing range many times, and the risk for chronic lead poisoning and its many symptoms increases.
While only questions persist as authorities search for a motive for the tragedy that occurred in Las Vegas, perhaps we can add another question to look into regarding the gunman’s own mental health: could there have been an environmental factor contributing to a person’s deterioration so much that it impacted their reason and rationality? In that case, how can we improve the environment where lead exposure is still possible to improve the health of all?