What are the Adverse Health Effects that Lead Exposure Can Have on Adults?

The toxic nature of lead is well documented. Lead affects all organs and functions of the body to varying degrees. The frequency and severity of symptoms among exposed individuals depends upon the amount of exposure. The list below shows many of the key lead-induced health effects.

  • Neurological Effects
    • Peripheral neuropathy
    • Fatigue / Irritability
    • Impaired concentration
    • Hearing loss
    • Wrist / Foot drop
    • Seizures
    • Encephalopathy
  • Gastrointestinal Effects
    • Nausea
    • Dyspepsia
    • Constipation
    • Colic
    • Lead line on gingival tissue
  • Reproductive Effects
    • Miscarriages/Stillbirths
    • Reduced sperm count & motility
    • Abnormal sperm
  • Heme Synthesis
    • Anemia
    • Erythrocyte protoporphyrin elevation
  • Renal Effects
    • Chronic nephropathy with proximal tubular damage
    • Hypertension
  • Other
    • Arthralgia
    • Myalgia

What Lead Levels are Considered Elevated in Adults?

  • At levels above 80 µg/dL, serious, permanent health damage may occur (extremely dangerous).
  • Between 40 and 80 µg/dL, serious health damage may be occuring, even if there are no symptoms (seriously elevated).
  • Between 25 and 40 µg/dL, regular exposure is occuring. There is some evidence of potential physiologic problems (elevated).
  • Between 10 and 25 µg/dL, lead is building up in the body and some exposure is occuring.

The typical level for U.S. adults is less than 10 µg/dL (mean = 3 µg/dL)


Heavy metals (including lead, cadmium, mercury, and the metalloid arsenic) are persistent in the environment and have documented potential for serious health consequences. Heavy metal toxicity may damage:

  • central nervous system
  • cardiovascular system
  • gastrointestinal system
  • lungs
  • kidneys
  • liver
  • endocrine glands
  • bones

Fortunately, integrative interventions like selenium and garlic have been shown to decrease the buildup and increase the excretion of toxic heavy metals.

Risk Factors for Toxic Metal Exposure


  • Lead-containing plumbing
  • Lead-based paints (in buildings built before 1978 and is the predominant source for children)
  • Foods grown in lead-rich soil


  • Eating fish or shellfish contaminated with methylmercury (includes shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tile fish, bass, walleye, pickerel)
  • Breathing contaminated workplace air or skin contact during use in the workplace
  • Release of mercury vapor from dental amalgam fillings


  • Tobacco smoke
  • Eating foods containing cadmium (levels are highest in grains, legumes, and leafy vegetables, fish and shellfish)
  • Contact with cadmium from household products (electric batteries and solar panels)

Signs and Symptoms

These can be similar to other health conditions and may not be immediately recognized as due to heavy metal toxicity:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Central nervous system dysfunction
  • Heart problems
  • Anemia


  • Blood testing
  • Urine testing
  • Hair and nail analysis

Conventional Therapies

  • Chelation therapy, which enhances the elimination of metals (both toxic and essential) from the body, including:
    • DMPS, an oral medication for arsenic, cadmium, and mercury toxicity
    • Succimer (DMSA), an oral medication for mild-to-moderate lead, arsenic and mercury toxicity
    • Calcium-disodium EDTA for lead encephalopathy and lead poisoning

Novel and Emerging Therapies

  • Toxicogenomics, the study of gene expression changes by toxin exposure
  • New chelation therapies, including polygamma-glutamic acid-coated superparamagnetic nanoparticles that have a high specificity for metal toxins

Dietary and Lifestyle Changes

  • Avoid or replace mercury amalgam dental fillings with mercury-free composite material
  • Maintain nutrient sufficiency, as adequate intake of essential trace minerals may reduce toxic metal uptake
  • Limit consumption of high-mercury fish to no more than 1 serving/week

Integrative Interventions

  • Selenium: Selenium is an inhibitor of mercury accumulation and increases excretion of mercury and arsenic
  • Vitamin C: A free-radical scavenger that has been shown to reduce lead levels in humans
  • Folate: Higher blood folate levels in pregnant women were associated with lower blood mercury and cadmium levels
  • Garlic: Garlic lowered lead levels in the blood of industrial workers as effectively as the chelator d-penicillamine
  • Alpha-Lipoic Acid and Glutathione: In preclinical studies, these compounds reduced the adverse changes in blood parameters due to lead, cadmium, and copper