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Pittsburgh's history of lead in our water, paint, and soil continues to have enormous repercussions for the area's public health. Hidden Poison is a series on lead problems and solutions, reported by public media partners 90.5 WESA News, Allegheny Front, PublicSource, and Keystone Crossroads. Read more at our website: hiddenpoison.org.

Lead Poisoning Has No Symptoms, So How Does It Affect The Body?

Jenny Stalnaker, her husband, and their 3-year-old child Townes spend a good two hours cleaning their house every night before bed. 

They’re trying to eliminate any lead, or lead dust on the surfaces in their century-old home in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Spring Garden. The nightly ritual began after a blood test for Townes tested positive for lead.

“I didn't know what to think. What does that mean? Is it permanent damage?" Stalnaker said. "And a lot of that is still up in the air. We don’t know. [Townes] has some behavioral issues - is that autism? Is it caused by lead? A lot of these things we still don't know.”

Those unknowns keep parents like Stalnaker wondering and worrying. She sees danger everywhere, from the enamel in cookware to shiny toys imported from China. Townes’ pediatrician Dr. Catherine Udekwu said without testing, there’s no way to know if a child has lead poisoning.

“The scary part about lead is there are no symptoms," she explained. "Early lead poisoning, there will be totally normal, beautiful babies, toddlers walking around and you would never suspect that there was anything wrong at all.”

Despite a lack of initial signs, lead can take a toll on a growing body. Dr. Anthony Pizon, Chief of Medical Toxicology at UPMC said there are number of ways that lead impacts the developing brain and bones. For one, lead mimics calcium really well.

“Calcium is often the trigger to release neurotransmitters, neurotransmitters are the way neurons communicate with each other. They send chemicals to and fro that signals a response the next neuron to eventually move your arm or have a thought or store a memory," said Pizon. "And since the releasing of these neurotransmitters is effected by calcium and lead behaves like calcium, it often can cause inappropriate release of neurotransmitters or block the release of neurotransmitters.”

Credit Stacy Stalnaker
Jenny Stalnaker says she's not always sure how lead poisoning affects her 3-year-old Townes.

As a young brain grows and develops, its cells are learning how to communicate and to become more efficient, and calcium plays an important role. Lead, which the body believes is calcium, interferes with this process. Bad neuro-connections, like faulty wiring, are allowed to remain and may lead to memory problems, and issues with balance.

It can also cause the premature death of brain cells, of which there is a finite amount. Another impact is how lead interferes with the coating on neurons. That coating, like the plastic that surrounds a wire, is essential to the body’s function. Imagine wire after wire touching each other sending messages all over the body. If the coating on the wire is frayed or disrupted, signals get lost, connections fail.

"We see this more often in the peripheral nerves - the nerves that say run from your brain to your hand," Pizon said. "It's not common, but not uncommon to find with chronic lead toxicity, things like wrist drops. You get weakness because that neurotransmission is not as effective."

And just like calcium, touted for building strong healthy bones, lead finds its way there too.

“Matter of fact, 90 percent of the lead you’re exposed to ends up embedded in your bone and by being embedded in your bone, affects bone growth and in children who are still growing it will arrest bone growth," he said. 

The potential impacts of lead poisoning are frightening, but Pizon said he feels a lot of stories are being blown out of proportion when it comes to lead in drinking water. He knows not everyone shares his view.

“Other people may take the evidence and show that we should be concerned because we know a certain level of lead does cause damage so any level of lead would cause damage," he said. "But I think there are bigger fish to fry, like worrying about lead paint in older homes than worrying about the tiny amount of lead in tap water, because it's probably meaningless.”

Jenny Stalnaker fell in love with the original woodwork, horsehair plaster and hardwood floors in her house, all of which turned out to be coated with lead. These days she’s less focused on the house.

“As a parent I just want to help [my child], I'm less concerned with what caused it," she said. "Certainly that would be nice to know and we may not ever know.”

Townes’ 9-month-old brother isn’t old enough to get tested, but it’s coming up soon.

“He’ll be tested at his one-year appointment," Stalnaker said. "All we can do is hope that the hours invested in cleaning have done something to get all the dust out of the house.”

Her family recently received some good news: Townes’ lead levels have gone down. Their pediatrician, Dr. Udekwu remains vigilant; pushing prevention through cleaning and remediation, consistent follow up testing and an eye on the numbers.

“Nothing within the realm of lead can be good for the body," said Udekwu. "The smaller the body the more at risk you are - remember its a developing body, a developing brain.”

Healthcare coverage on 90.5 WESA is made possible in part by a grant from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

Larkin got her start in radio as a newsroom volunteer in 2006. She went on to work for 90.5 as a reporter, Weekend Edition host, and Morning Edition producer. In 2009 she became 90.5's All Things Considered host, and in 2017 she was named Managing Editor. She moderates and facilitates public panels and forums, and has won regional and statewide awards for her reporting, including stories on art, criminal justice, domestic violence, and breaking news. Her work has been featured across Pennsylvania and nationally on NPR.
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