An Integrative Approach to Lead Toxicity

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Even though leaded gasoline was banned in cars after 1975, lead remains ubiquitous in the environment. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reports that sources of lead are widespread and diverse, including older homes and buildings, drinking water, food containers, workplaces, soil, air, toys, cosmetics, and cigarette smoke, to name a few. 

Despite declines in lead blood levels, a new paper featured in The Lancet estimates that the existing dangers of lead exposure are significant.

“The findings in the article demonstrate a startling estimated loss of 765 million IQ points for children younger than five years old and more than 5.5 million adult deaths from cardiovascular disease due to lead exposure, amounting to a total global cost of $6.0 trillion in 2019," said environmental health expert Jaquel Patterson, ND, MBA, IFMCP. "This article is much needed to continue the important conversation about the impact lead exposure has on the health and well-being of our society, particularly in low-income and middle-income populations.” 

Health Effects of Lead Toxicity

The Lancet analysis found that cardiovascular disease deaths were six times higher than the Global Burden of Diseases 2019 estimate. In addition to cardiovascular disease, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that lead exposure can negatively impact multiple body systems as it is distributed to the brain, liver, kidneys, and bones. WHO states that lead exposure is particularly harmful to young children and women of childbearing age as the lead in bones can be released into the blood during pregnancy, where it can potentially harm the developing fetus. 

In addition to the long-term effects of lead exposure, the negative impact on the developing brain of a child is especially worrisome. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, even small amounts of lead exposure can lead to behavioral issues in children, such as inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and irritability, with greater exposure resulting in problems with learning and reading, delayed growth, and hearing loss.

“The cost of lead exposure is substantial for the first five years of a child's life with data estimates showing an average loss of 5-9 IQ points for children in low and middle-income populations with an estimated lifetime income loss of 12 percent, and this is in addition to the possible effects of undernutrition and limited psychosocial stimulation these populations face,” explained Patterson who is the Founder and Medical Director of Fairfield Family Health in Fairfield, Conn.

WHO concludes, “There is no level of exposure to lead that is known to be without harmful effects.”

A 2022 article featured in PNAS highlights the issue of "legacy lead exposure," estimating that 170 million Americans alive today were exposed to high levels of lead in early childhood. Addressing the needs of those individuals who are now adults is important and can be done by utilizing an integrative health strategy.

An Integrative Approach to Prevention and Treatment

Patterson utilizes blood tests to help detect lead, especially in patient populations who may be at high risk of lead toxicity. She also makes retesting blood a priority, which helps determine if the treatment protocol is working or needs to be adjusted.

Regarding the prevention of lead toxicity, reducing lead exposure becomes paramount, according to Patterson.

"Begin with the basics by focusing on removing any continued environmental exposures from the home, which includes proper air and water filtration," said Patterson. From there, she focuses on shoring up the individual’s detoxification pathway through diet, dietary supplements, and lifestyle factors such as exercise.

“Exercise increases blood flow and circulation and enhances the liver and lymph’s ability to properly eliminate toxins,” said Patterson. “The goal should be at least 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise weekly.”

“There are many vitamins and minerals in IV form or as dietary supplements that can aid the liver’s ability to detoxify toxins,” Patterson explained. Her go-to detoxification nutrients include N-acetyl-cysteine, glutathione, vitamin C, selenium, choline, curcumin, and alpha lipoic acid.

Patterson also uses an infrared sauna to help mobilize fat-soluble xenobiotics and support cardiometabolic health. According to a 2021 review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, sauna use has been shown to improve multiple markers of cardiometabolic disease, potentially acting at the cellular level to moderate stress.

Specific to treatment, the authors of The Lancet paper explain that studies have shown that ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) chelation therapy can be effective at removing lead from the body, showing that it reduces the risk of adverse cardiovascular events over a five-year follow-up period in patients with previous myocardial infarction. "These are encouraging findings that could suggest that reducing lead exposure could benefit the adults of today,” they concluded.

Final Advice

Patterson said it’s important to remember that “the population at highest risk may have less economic means to purchase dietary supplements and afford integrative treatments.” That’s why she places such a high emphasis on diet and lifestyle factors.

"Also understand that patients may not feel well when detoxifying, so the patient must be foundationally strong and supported for a few months before removal of any toxins," she cautioned.

Integrative practitioners who are interested in learning more about lead detoxification and environmental medicine can contact The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) and/or the National Association of Environmental Medicine. Patterson serves on the Board of Directors for the AAEM.