Get the Lead Out?

My two-year-old grandson has lead poisoning from living in old Army Base housing. His lead levels have come down, but slowly. What kind of herbs or any other natural means can hasten the process?

– April 11, 2005

Lead poisoning is a serious child health issue – nearly 900,000 American youngsters between ages one and five have elevated blood levels of this heavy metal. Lead in the body can cause mental retardation, and even low levels can slow a young child’s development and lead to learning and behavior problems.

While affected children may have no obvious signs of poisoning, some may complain of one or more of these symptoms: headaches, muscle and joint weakness or pain, fatigue, abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting, and constipation. Affected children may be irritable or have behavioral problems; they may also have trouble concentrating, lose their appetite, or report a metallic taste in the mouth.

Exposure to lead often comes from paint applied prior to 1977 and from the soil (which picks up lead from gasoline and from the lead in houses that had been painted with lead-based paint). Lead can get into drinking water from metals used in plumbing materials; more recently, it has been found in some imported plastic mini-blinds and vertical blinds as well as old toys, some imported toys, lead-glazed or lead-painted pottery, leaded crystal, and some ink and plaster.

The most important treatment is to end the child’s exposure to lead – either get the lead out of the child’s environment or remove the child from the place where he or she is exposed to lead. If you decide to remove lead paint, make sure to engage a professional trained to do the job safely; keep young children and pregnant women away from the house while the work is being done.

You also can ensure that a child’s diet is protective:

  • Make sure kids get four to six small meals per day (it is easier to absorb lead on an empty stomach).
  • Give children plenty of iron-rich foods (normal levels of iron protect against the harmful effects of lead). Iron-rich foods include red meats, fish, and chicken, iron-fortified cereals, raisins, prunes, and other dried fruits.
  • Make sure kids get calcium-rich foods (calcium reduces lead absorption). Foods high in calcium include milk, yogurt, cheese, spinach, kale, collard greens, and other green leafy vegetables.

I don’t know of any herbs or natural treatments that remove lead from the body. The conventional medical treatment is by chelation therapy and involves use of a drug (given by injection or taken orally) that bonds with lead so that it forms a compound that can be excreted in the urine. Chelation may be recommended for children whose blood levels of lead are 45 micrograms per deciliter or higher (in the U.S. lead poisoning is formally defined as having at least 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood).

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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