A renewed national focus on lead poisoning has prompted additional investment in efforts to protect and screen children for exposure to the metal, as New Jersey and other states seek to protect youngsters from the potentially deadly toxin.
Less attention, however, has been paid to high lead levels among adults, many of whom don’t know they’ve been infected.
While generally less vulnerable than children, adults may have been exposed to the heavy metal over longer periods, inhaling or ingesting the element as a fine dust that can travel through the body and be absorbed, causing fatigue, illness, organ failure, or even death.
The New Jersey Poison Center, which tracks incidents, receives “a few dozen” calls annually related to lead exposure in adults, said Dr. Diane Calello, the facility’s executive and medical director. And, while most adult cases traditionally involve exposure in the workplace, most of the calls she has received concern people who have visited enclosed firing ranges for fun.
Guns ‘emit dust from the metal’
“The big story of the past year has been these indoor shooting ranges,” Calello said. Lead is a standard component in most bullets and, when fired, guns emit dust from the metal that — when not properly ventilated — can collect on surfaces at the range, or on the shooter. These particles can then be transmitted to the shooter’s car and home, creating exposure hazards for others.
This trend prompted the poison center, a division of Rutgers NJ Medical School, to remind the public of the dangers associated with lead poisoning in general and indoor shooting in particular.
The center advises physicians on poisoning cases and, when it comes to lead, works with other state and local agencies to make sure the patient receives appropriate care and the cause of contamination is properly addressed.
As part of National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, which runs through Saturday, the center wanted to alert the public about the latest trend. Officials urged shooters to wash their hands — or even shower and change clothes — after leaving an indoor range, separate potentially contaminated laundry, and make sure that ranges have proper ventilation.
Calello urged people who are concerned about poisoning to visit their doctor for a blood test; they can also call the poison center, at 1-800-222-1222, for more information.
Nationwide, some 22.5 adults per 100,000 had elevated blood-lead levels (above 10 micrograms/deciliter, the standard at the time), according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, down nearly four points from 2010. New Jersey was one of a dozen states (of 48 reporting) with higher rates, with 27 adults per 100,000 — or some 1,200 individuals — showing high levels in 2012. New York had similar outcomes, while the rates were nearly double in Pennsylvania.
“But the true incidence is unknown, since most people don’t get tested,” Calello said, noting that — unlike with infants — lead tests aren’t usually required for adults. “There’s not a lot of screening for adult lead levels, other than in certain work situations,” she said.
Concerns were first raised about lead poisoning in the 1970s. But it became national news again in recent years, as exposure in Flint, MI, revealed a water system riddled with high levels of the toxin. The revelation sparked widespread testing. Testing in the Garden State revealed lead present in the drinking water at dozens of school systems, but many experts said the biggest hazard is likely closer to home.
The CDC tightened the screening standards in recent years, calling for follow-ups with anyone who is found to have more than 5 mcg/dl, and New Jersey followed suit in February. New Jersey requires babies to be tested, and it has screened more than 200,000 annually in recent years; advocates have said more than 3,000 children have elevated levels, based on the new standards; Calello said she gets calls about many of these cases.
‘No safe level in children’
With children, the most common cause of exposure is environmental contamination —often in the form of lead paint in their living quarters. Lead was used in house paint and other finishes until it was banned in the 1970s, but these surfaces remain in many historic homes in New Jersey — which exist in both poor and wealthy areas, although low-income communities tend to have higher rates.
Calello stressed that children do not have to physically eat paint chips to be poisoned. “It’s much more subtle than that. It’s often not a wall that has paint peeling off it,” she said, noting that doorjambs, window sills and other points of friction can produce a subtle dust that is easy for young children to pick up on their fingers — fingers that often end up in their mouths.
Last week, the state Department of Health welcomed local health agencies to apply for grants to help provide testing, intervention, education, care management, and home inspection programs. Gov. Chris Christie included $10 million extra in the current state budget to fund these efforts, following recent criticism from environmental advocates who said he has diverted funds for lead programs over the years.
“There is no safe level of lead in children,” state health commissioner Cathleen Bennett said. “Lead can disrupt the normal growth and development of a child’s brain and central nervous system and can result in hyperactivity, attention deficits, developmental delays and decreased hearing.”