Lead vs. Iron – The Difference Between A Poison & Necessity

(Sarah Saif, Islamabad)

Most people are aware that lead is a poison. It's also a very useful metal. People have been using lead in their daily lives for a long time. The Romans made pewter dishes and pipes for water from lead. The effects of poisoning from lead leaching into liquids (water) probably contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. Lead exposure didn't end when lead-based paint and leaded gasoline were phased out.

Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides noted in the first century AD: “Lead makes the mind give way”.

To quote the Occupation Safety and Health Research Institute: “Lead poisoning is one of the earliest identified and most known occupational disease. Its acute effects have been recognized from antiquity.”

Lead is found in the insulation coating electronics, leaded crystal, storage batteries, to coat the wicks of some candles, to stabilize certain plastics, and in solder. You are exposed to trace amounts of lead every day.

Lead is a poisonous metal that our bodies cannot utilize. In fact, lead prevents the body from using good minerals like iron and calcium the way it should.

You know lead is toxic, but do you know what makes it poisonous? In a nutshell, it's toxic mainly because it preferentially replaces other metals (e.g., zinc, calcium and iron) in biochemical reactions. Lead interferes with the proteins that cause certain genes to turn on and off by displacing other metals in the molecules. This changes the shape of the protein molecule such that it can't perform its function.

Research is ongoing to identify which molecules bind with lead. Some of the proteins that are known to be affected by lead regulate blood pressure (which can cause development delays in children and high blood pressure in adults), heme production (which can lead to anemia), and sperm production (possibly implicating lead in infertility). It can cause everything from constipation to permanent reduction in your IQ and mental capacity.

Lead displaces calcium in the reactions that transmit electrical impulses in the brain, which is another way of saying it diminishes your ability to think or recall information, or makes you stupid. It also can potentially fundamentally change a given person’s personality, causing them to be irritable and suffer from erratic mood-swings and fatigue without warning; stunted growth (in children); miscarriages; and a whole slew of other terrifying symptoms.

The main concern is lead exposure with small children because lead can cause developmental problems, plus kids engage in activities that increase their exposure to the metal (e.g., putting things in their mouths, not washing their hands as Dust/ Soil can be contaminated with lead, Drinking water may be lead contaminated etc).

Lead poisoning occurs when an individual, swallows, absorbs, or inhales lead in any form. The result can be damaging; to the brain, nerves, and many other parts of the body.
Acute lead poisoning, which is somewhat rare, occurs when a relatively large amount of lead is taken into the body over a short period of time.
Chronic lead poisoning — a common problem in children — occurs when small amounts of lead are taken in over a longer period.
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines childhood lead poisoning as a whole-blood lead concentration equal to or greater than 10 micrograms/dL.

Bonus Facts: For reference, about 94% of lead absorbed into the adult body and 70% in children gets stored in the bones and teeth. This actually turns out to be a potentially good thing, as its ability to do damage is significantly greater in your blood and soft tissues than in bone. This is one of the reasons kids are so much more susceptible to the negative effects of lead poisoning.

Iron, on the other hand, is a key nutrient. It is part of the oxygen- bearing component of red blood cells (haemoglobin), and the prevention of haemoglobin formation by the presence of lead is the primary cause of lead-induced anaemia (hypochromic anaemia).

Hypochromic anaemia is produced by significant iron deficiency even if no lead is present. Iron also plays a significant role in brain activity and a wide range of other bodily functions.

Iron competes with lead for absorption in the gut and uptake within the body, and vitamin C can enhance its ability to displace lead. It has been linked to blood and organ lead levels and may protect the blood/brain barrier from lead impacts as well as reducing lead induced apoptosis (cellular suicide) within the brain.

Iron aids in protection of the body from the harmful effects of lead. Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies. Pre-menopausal women, pregnant women and infants are at higher risk of iron deficiency. Iron deficiency, particularly in children, has independent impacts on the brain that can exacerbate lead impacts.
It is important for all children, but especially children with elevated blood lead levels, to eat a well-balanced and age-appropriate diet. It is also important for children to be evaluated for iron-deficiency anemia and to eat food rich in iron, vitamin C, and calcium.

So, the crux can be stated as; You need iron to transport oxygen in your red blood cells, yet too much iron can kill you. You breathe oxygen, yet again, too much is lethal. Lead isn't like those elements. It's simply poisonous. Paracelsus' idea that the dose makes the poison doesn't really apply with lead. Many substances are non-toxic or even essential in trace amounts, yet poisonous in quantity.

There is no minimum safe exposure limit, in part because lead accumulates in the body. There are government regulations regarding 'acceptable' limits for products and pollution because lead is useful and necessary, but the reality is, any lead is too much lead.


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