Lead has been used for thousands of years because it is widespread, easy to extract, and easy to work with. It is highly malleable and easily meltable. Equally, lead poisoning has been documented since ancient Rome, ancient Greece and ancient China. It is thus clear that, ingested or inhaled, lead is poisonous to animals and humans. Still we were foolish enough to add it to petrol starting in the 1920s and use lead pigments particularly in white but also in yellow, orange, and red paint to spread its occurrence even further.
We have lived with the consequences ever since. Lead poisoning typically results from ingestion of food or water contaminated with lead, but may also occur after accidental ingestion of contaminated soil, dust, or lead-based paint. It is a neurotoxin that accumulates both in soft tissues and the bones, damaging the nervous system and causing brain disorders. Lead has been shown many times to permanently reduce the cognitive capacity of children at extremely low levels of exposure. Lead exposure in early childhood has also been linked to violent crime.
But there is more
As if that was not enough, new research has shown that early life exposure can alter the composition of the gut microbiota (remember one of my favourite topics), increasing the chances for obesity in adulthood. So far at least in mice. Lead was added to the drinking water of female mice prior to breeding through nursing their young. The lead levels used were designed to be within past and present human population exposure levels. Thus the lowest dose used of 5 µg/dL is the same as the current US blood lead action level, while the higher dose mirrored exposure levels during the 1960s and 1970s to be able to evaluate both current and historically relevant lead levels.
Once weaned, the offspring were raised to adulthood without additional exposure, and then tested for lead effects acquired from their mothers. The guts of both males and females exposed to lead had all of the similar complexity in microbiota as those not exposed. The differences were in the balance of the different groups of microorganisms. Due to differences in their gut microbiota, adult male mice exposed to lead during gestation and lactation were 11 percent heavier than those not exposed. But not females, although the researchers speculate that females might have shown effects on obesity if they had followed them longer.
Although improving, it is not over yet
So now we have obesity added to the long list of potential harm caused by lead contamination. Fortunately, by the mid-1980s, a significant shift in lead end-use patterns had taken place with lead use phased out from petrol in many countries and banned from paint, but still remaining in some grades of aviation fuel, and in some developing countries.
Although the situation has improved, it is not over yet. Lead may be introduced to foods from the use of lead containing pottery or lead crystalware. Another source is water from lead containing pipes. And wild game that has been shot with lead pellets. Not to forget some odd Chinese herbs found to contain high lead levels.
So vigilance is still needed.