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Five-Minute Wait Decreases Risk of Lead Poisoning

 By Dr. Gifford Jones

Civil wars and corruption helped to bring down the Roman Empire. But how much was due to mad emperors? Some authorities suspect that their brains had been so poisoned by lead that they could no longer govern wisely. Romans used cheap, easy to use lead pipes for their plumbing and wine processing. Some Romans even sprinkled lead on their food! Today lead still poses problems, but being patient when thirsty can decrease the risk.

Lead is one of the deadliest of all pollutants. The good news is we’ve removed lead from gasoline, canned goods, paints and we no longer use lead pipes in our homes.

But here’s the bad news. If you’re older than 45 you accumulated a lot of lead in your bones early in life. And the greater the amount of lead in your body the greater the risk of disease. Lead is toxic to every tissue in the body and 95 per cent is stored in bones.

Brian Schwartz, Professor of Environmental Health Science at Johns Hopkins University, heads Hopkins’ “Memory Study”. For years his study has been tracking 1,000 men and women in their 50s, 60s and 70s in Baltimore to determine the amount of lead in their bones. Researchers discovered the average lead level in bone was 19 parts per million (ppm).

In contrast people in their 20s and 30s have practically no lead in their bones as they live at a time when there’s less lead in the air, food and water.

So what do these findings mean for those over 45 years of age? Could lead be the reason why we’re always losing our keys or eyeglasses?

Dr. Schwartz reports that increased levels of lead in the brain result in accelerated aging of the brain, increasing its age from three to six years.

Dr. Howard Hu, an expert on lead poisoning at Harvard University, says that the increased lead level is related to a decline in memory and mental ability. In one study men with the most lead in their bones were twice as likely to score lower on mental exams than others with the least lead.

Moreover, their scores declined four times faster over a six-year period than men with the least amount of lead in their bones. Some scores were so low that they were in the range of patients normally sent to a neurologist to be assessed for either senile dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease.

Other studies show that men with high levels of lead had three times the risk of developing cataracts and were twice as likely to exhibit hypertension.

It’s not surprising that kidneys that excrete toxins work less efficiently with high levels of lead. And for patients with type 2 diabetes the effect of lead on the kidneys is 15 times worse.

If you’re over 45 you probably have a fair amount of lead in your bones. As we age and bones become thinner (due to osteoporosis) this lead gradually leaks out and can cause injury to organs more sensitive to lead poisoning. To decrease this risk keep bones strong by getting sufficient exercise, calcium and vitamin D.

You can also decrease the risk of lead by tossing away cigarettes and avoiding second-hand smoke. Both have enough lead to increase blood levels.

Be cautious of traditional medicines from China, India and Mexico as some contain high levels of lead. Some hair dyes are also formulated with lead content. Hobbies such as ceramics expose you to lead. Don’t store any beverage in a crystal decanter. And every year lead poisoning is reported from moonshine.

Health Canada denies any lead problem with our drinking water. But it tests water after running it for five minutes. How many of us run the water this long before drinking? A U.S. study also showed that 15 per cent of homes in both countries have too much lead in their water on the first morning draw.

Ideally, one should run the cold water tap for five minutes before drinking water, particularly if a home was built before 1986. And use cold water for drinking, cooking and baby formulas. Hot and soft water leach out more lead.

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Dr. Gifford Jones  Bio
Dr. Gifford Jones Most recent columns

W. Gifford-Jones M.D is the pen name of Dr. Ken Walker graduate of The Harvard Medical School. He’s been a ship’s surgeon, hotel physician and family doctor and later trained in surgery at McGill in Montreal, University of Rochester N.Y. and Harvard. His medical column is published by 60 Canadian newspapers and several in the U.S. He is the author of seven books. Dr. Walker has a medical practice in Toronto. His Web site is: http://www.mydoctor.ca/gifford-jones

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