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Heavy Metals - Lead

Lead is a biologically toxic element found in large amounts in the environment due to human activity.  The adverse effects of lead poisoning include altered mental function, cardiovascular disease and other cognitive conditions.

Where Do They Come From?

Lead has been, and continues to be, used in a number of manufacturing processes throughout the world.  In some world regions, such as North America, there have been steps taken through legislation to reduce lead exposure, but in developing countries, lead exposure is still a major health risk.  Sources of lead include:

Food and Water and Air

  • Lead can enter food through contaminated soil, cooking wear or utensils containing lead, and through cans containing lead. Although canning processes using lead are banned in North America, lead can still be found in cans from other areas of the world.

  • Acid rain and contaminated air can carry lead particles.


  • Lead based cosmetics still exist in some countries, mainly in hair dyes and makeup, especially lip stick.


  • Cigarettes can contain lead

  • Lead was used in paint in North America prior to 1977.  Homes with old paint can still be a risk, as are areas of the world that still use lead in paint.

  • Lead pipes were commonly used in homes.  The use of lead pipes was banned in North America around 1986.

Prescription medications and supplements


  • Occupational exposure is a common source of lead poisoning. Auto repair, smelting, construction, gun/bullet exposure, plumbing and painting are all associated with elevated lead exposure.

  • Lead used in the production of batteries, ammunition, pipes, ceramic products, caulking, and pipe solder can contaminate the surrounding environment.

  • Leaded gasoline used to be a major source of exposure, but it is banned in most world regions.

How They Affect You

Symptoms associated with lead exposure include gastrointestinal upset or constipation, fatigue, irritability, hypertension, poor memory, peripheral neuropathy, kidney disease, seizure and other neurological and developmental concerns.  


Lead and Blood: 99% of lead is bound to RBC and distributed to soft tissue and bone.  Half of lead absorbed is deposited into bone where it binds to calcium receptors preventing calcium from binding.  Blood lead levels of 5-9 ug/dL has been associated with an increased risk of death from all causes, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.  




Neurotoxicity: The mechanisms of lead induced neurotoxicity are complex.  Oxidative stress, dysregulation of cell signaling, impairment of neurotransmitter function are factors in lead neurotoxicity.  Lead is able to penetrate the blood brain barrier and cause damage in the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and cerebellum resulting in a variety of neurological disorders, such as brain damage, mental retardation, behavioral problems and possibly, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.  Lead also restricts neurotransmitter release disrupting the function the GABA, dopamine and cholinergic systems.  


Developmental Concerns: Lead exposure in utero, infancy or early childhood can slow mental development and cause lower intelligence later in childhood that can persist beyond childhood.  The effects of lead are more toxic in the developing nervous system of children than a mature brain.   According to NHANES III, between 1999-2002 91.7% of children in the US had detectable levels of lead in the blood.  Children who had blood lead levels higher than 0 but less than 5 ug/dL associated with a decrease in IQ.

How To Protect Yourself

The following are ways to limit your exposure to lead: 

  • Avoid lead contaminated food.

  • Avoid canned foods, especially if the cans are damaged. 

  • Avoid drinking lead contaminated water and drink only filtered water. 

  • Check to ensure your beauty and personal care products do not contain lead. 

  • Avoid smoking. 

  • Avoid lead-based paint in old homes if living in a world region that allows lead in paint, or if refurbishing furniture.

  • If living in a home built before 1986, chances are lead pipes have been used so replacing the pipes and fixtures is suggested.  

  • If you live in a polluted city, investing in an air filter for your home and bedroom may be effective ways to reduce exposure. 

  • Limit exposure to car exhaust fumes.

  • There are some parts of the world (such as India and China) that may still allow lead in the manufacturing of herbal products. Avoid contaminated herbal products.

3 Essentials

  1. Avoid canned foods

  2. Avoid smoking

  3. Limit exposure to car exhaust

Additional Key Recommendations

  1. Avoid lead contaminated foods

  2. Avoid drinking water from lead-based pipes

  3. Check to ensure your beauty and personal care products do not contain lead

  4. Avoid lead-based paints


  1. SoderlandP, et a. Chronic kidney disease associated with environmental toxins and exposures. Adv ChronKid Dis2010;17:254-264

  2. SchoberSE, MirelLB, GraubardBI, et al. Blood lead levels and death from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: results from the NHANES III mortality study. Environ Health Perspect. 2006 Oct;114(10):1538-41.

  3.  Iqbal S, et al. Estimated burden of blood lead levels 5 microg/dl in 1999-2002 and declines from 1988 to 1994. Environ Res. 2008


Work with a naturopathic doctor / naturopath to help you assess for environmental pollutants and to understand how they may be affecting your health. The information on this website is a guide for ways to protect you and your family from environmental pollutants.  It is not meant to replace advice from a healthcare professional.

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