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How Does Lead Affect Our Environment?


Lead is a toxic metal that is found naturally in the environment. It is normally found at very low levels in the environment. High levels can kill. And there is no safe level of exposure for humans. Let’s learn more about how lead affects our environment, including the people who live in it.

The Impact Lead Has on Plants

Plants have evolved to cope with the naturally low level of lead in the soil. However, they are not going to thrive in an area where mining tailings and buried lead-acid batteries pollute the soil with lead. Lead in the soil inhibits seed germination and seedling development. It can interfere with root and plant growth, leading to stunted plants. It tends to concentrate in the roots, but it will affect every aspect of the plant. For example, lead absorption by a plant interferes with its ability to absorb magnesium and iron. This impedes their chlorophyll production, often leading to weak, discolored plants. Gardeners can add calcium and phosphorous to the soil to reduce how much lead is taken up by plants. The alternative is removing the polluted soil or trying to cover the polluted soil with clean soil.

The Damage to Wildlife

Lead buckshot can kill an animal with lead poisoning though the bullet itself did not. Scavengers like vultures are at high risk of dying from lead poisoning. This may happen when they directly consume lead, swallowing meat laced with lead shot. It may occur indirectly, because lead fragments left in the soil leach lead into the ground. That lead may be picked up by plants eaten by local animals until they’re in turn consumed by wolves, eagles and other predators.

This is why hunters are being asked to use non-lead shot or clean up gut piles from animals killed by lead shot rather than leave them out for the predators. Furthermore, this is one more reason why you should catch the wounded animal instead of letting it escape. And it is a good reason to use something other than lead shot to deter pests, unless you’re going to retrieve the body.

Its Impact on Human Health

The levels can build up in certain circumstances. A classic case was the buildup of lead in lead water pipes and tanks used up until a century ago. Another was the buildup of lead in deep aquifers around the world, causing lead poisoning among those who drank it. Modern exposure includes inhaling lead paint fumes, eating animals shot with lead slugs and eating lead paint chips.

Lead is not required by the human body in any way. However, it will be absorbed by the body and follow the same biochemical routes as calcium. It damages nervous system tissue and gets stored in bone. This is why people exposed to high levels of lead may suffer from lead poisoning for years after the initial event, especially if they were exposed for a long period of time. A pregnant mother with lead in her body could transfer it to her child through the placenta, and the risk goes up if she has a calcium deficiency. Lead can be found in breast milk, as well. This is how children born to poor mothers with high lead exposure as children can have children with lead birth defects who weren’t directly exposed. High lead exposure can cause learning delays, reduced intelligence and even brain damage. In adults, it can increase one’s risk of stroke and heart attack.

The high risk posed by exposure to lead is one reason why there is a drive on to remove it from our immediately environment. We’ve already eliminated leaded gasoline. We haven’t completely eliminated risks like eating food from lead-glazed containers, living in buildings with leaded paint or breathing the fumes of smelting and recycling plants that release traces amounts of it into the air. This is why we want to remove it. However, lead removal is dangerous in and of itself. If you live in a building with lead paint or pipes, you will actually make things worse if you try to rip it out. The only safe solution is hiring experts in lead remediation. Lead remediation should be seen as an investment in your family’s health and safety.

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