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Lead Poisoning: The Real Health Risks

Welcome to Doctors’ Notes, our newest contribution from Urban Health correspondents and husband and wife physicians Dr. Rob and Dr. Karla Robinson.  The dynamic duo will be fielding questions about health, as it relates to African Americans.  Please feel free to send them questions via digitalpitches@ebony.comWe promise to keep it anonymous. 


With the recent discovery of lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan, many have wondered what that community is actually experiencing and what the long-term health consequences may be. In one word…devastation.

The truth is that this type of exposure to lead is damaging to the body on many levels and can have far reaching consequences beyond what we can immediately see.

While we usually think of lead poisoning in the context of children inadvertently ingesting lead-based paint that has peeled or chipped, lead poisoning can actually occur in a variety of ways.  As evidenced by the conditions of the water supply in Flint, lead contamination can come from water and many other common sources including dust, toys, and soil.

Lead poses a serious risk of injury to the brain, kidneys, and digestive system when exposed to it repeatedly and/or in high doses. Neurological problems including learning difficulties, memory loss, behavioral problems and even hearing loss are common in mild to moderate blood lead levels. Additionally, kidney disease, chronic abdominal pain, and delayed puberty can occur with lead toxicity. With severely elevated blood lead levels, seizures, coma and swelling of the brain are common.

Children younger than six years of age, and particularly those between the ages of one and three, are most susceptible to the toxic effects of lead. The lead more easily enters the brain from the bloodstream because the nervous system of young children isn’t fully developed. Sadly, our children in Flint are at serious risk of a lifetime of harmful effects from the exposure they have received.

But let’s be clear. Lead poisoning is not just an issue for children, it can affect adults as well. While our bodies are more easily able to clear lead when it is introduced to our system, when exposed to levels like we’ve seen in Flint, harmful effects are not unusual. Symptoms commonly seen in adults with high levels of lead include abdominal pain, joint pain, fatigue, constipation and decreased sex drive just to name a few.

It not only impacts those adults and children that were directly exposed to the contaminated drinking water, but also those in generations to come. Consider also the women and girls who were exposed to high levels of lead and will become pregnant in the future. The lead that was stored in their bones, can also leak into the bloodstream during future pregnancies and affect the unborn baby. The impact of this travesty is far reaching and long lasting.

Unfortunately the toxic effect of chronic exposure to lead on the brain and neurological system are not easily reversible. The mainstay of treatment is to reduce and eliminate further exposure to the lead and to offer supportive care. For some, the damage has already been done. However, there is still something we can do so that this won’t happen to another community. Let’s show our support for the community of Flint and other areas where the health of our families are in danger by continuing to raise awareness about the issues affecting us.

It’s a health thing…we’ve got to understand!

About the Doctors:

Dr. Karla and Dr. Rob are the founders of Urban Housecall, a multimedia health and wellness resource, and also hosts of the Urban Housecall Radio Show.  For more from the doctors, visit their website at, like them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter @urbanhousecall!