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World Health Organization
Lead poisoning and health
Reviewed August 2015
1.Lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems and is particularly harmful to young children.
2.Childhood lead exposure is estimated to contribute to about 600 000 new cases of children developing intellectual disabilities every year.
3.Lead exposure is estimated to account for 143 000 deaths per year with the highest burden in developing regions.
4.About one half of the burden of disease from lead occurs in the WHO South-East Asia Region, with about one-fifth each in the WHO Western Pacific and Eastern Mediterranean Regions.
5.Lead in the body is distributed to the brain, liver, kidney and bones. It is stored in the teeth and bones, where it accumulates over time. Human exposure is usually assessed through the measurement of lead in blood.
6.There is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe.
7.Lead poisoning is entirely preventable.
Sources and routes of exposure
People can become exposed to lead through occupational and environmental sources. This mainly results from:
1.inhalation of lead particles generated by burning materials containing lead, e.g. during smelting, informal recycling, stripping leaded paint and using leaded gasoline; and
2.ingestion of lead-contaminated dust, water (from leaded pipes), food (from lead-glazed or lead-soldered containers).
3.The use of some traditional cosmetics and medicines can also result in lead exposure.
Once lead enters the body, it is distributed to organs such as the brain, kidneys, liver and bones. The body stores lead in the teeth and bones where it accumulates over time. Lead stored in bone may be remobilized into the blood during pregnancy, thus exposing the fetus. Undernourished children are more susceptible to lead because their bodies absorb more lead if other nutrients, such as calcium, are lacking. Children at highest risk are the very young (including the developing fetus) and the impoverished.
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