Lead

INFORMATION FOR WOMEN WHO ARE EXPOSED TO LEAD DURING PREGNANCY OR BREASTFEEDING

The information provided below is for readers based in the United States of America. Readers outside of the United States of America should seek the information from local sources.

What is lead?

Lead is a heavy metal that acts as a toxin by interfering with various body functions. Lead has been present in the environment from various industrial activities for thousands of years, putting pregnant women at risk of exposure. The word plumbing comes from the Latin word for lead because pipes were built of lead as far back as ancient Rome. Only over the past century have scientists come to recognize the dangers of lead. This has resulted in the removal of lead from sources ranging from gasoline, to indoor paint, to plumbing.

Is there a safe level of lead to which I can be exposed during pregnancy?

Professional organizations, such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), have set guidelines for lead based on blood levels. In terms of taking lead into the body, you should keep your exposure as low as possible. This means consuming water in municipalities that are not known to have problems with lead in the water supply. An example of a lead problem is the water crisis that was discovered in Flint, Michigan. Keeping lead exposure at a minimum also means avoiding certain occupations and hobbies while you are pregnant. High risk occupations include lead smelting, mining, and refining, plumbing, automobile service, ship building, welding, waste recycling, working with batteries, and glass work. It also includes working with paint or other art materials that may contain lead, so even amateur artists might need to be careful, depending on their materials and work.

Regardless of your hobbies and occupation, if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, the target goal for your blood level of lead should be 5 micrograms/dL or less. One percent of women of childbearing age have blood levels of lead above this concentration. If your blood level is in the range of 5-10 mcg/dL, this is considered borderline risk and reason for your doctor to investigate possible sources of contamination. Blood lead levels on the order of 40 mcg/dL can lead to symptoms and signs of lead poisoning, such as high blood pressure, problems with nerves, movement problems and tremors, headaches, loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, aches in muscles and joints, behavioral changes, trouble concentrating, gout, kidney troubles, constipation, and anemia. Lead levels approaching or exceeding 70 mcg/dL require treatment with a process called chelation, in which you are given an agent that pulls the lead from the body.

Can lead exposure make it harder for me to get pregnant?

Yes. Lead poisoning has been found to be associated with infertility. Additionally, rodent studies hint that led poisoning in your male partner may possibly reduce his fertility, thereby making it more difficult for you to become pregnant.

Can lead exposure cause a miscarriage?

Yes. Lead poisoning has been found to be associated with an increased risk of spontaneous abortion (miscarriage), as well as preterm birth and stillbirth.

Can lead exposure during my pregnancy cause a birth defect?

Lead exposure in the mother can lead to congenital heart defects in the baby.

Are there long-term consequences to my exposure to lead?

Lead exposure in the mother can lead to problems in the development of the brain in the baby. This can lead to reduced intelligence (showing up as a loss of IQ points and difficulties in school).

I just found out I am 6 weeks pregnant and last weekend I was exposed to lead. Will my baby have a problem?

Whether or not your baby is at risk depends on whether or not you are at risk for lead toxicity, which in turn depends on whether you received a high dose of lead. However, lead toxicity usually results from repeated or continuous exposure to a source of lead, due to ones occupation or environment. Blood lead levels on the order of 40 mcg/dL can lead to symptoms and signs of lead poisoning, such as high blood pressure, problems with nerves, movement problems and tremors, headaches, loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, aches in muscles and joints, behavioral changes, trouble concentrating, gout, kidney troubles, constipation, and anemia. However, if the level of lead in your blood is above 5 mcg/dL, but far below 40 mcg/dL you may not experience symptoms, but the baby may still be at risk, and you may become sick in the future. If you think that you may have been exposed to a lead source, you need to have your lead levels tested.

Is a high exposure to lead on some days of the week, month, or year as risky as being exposed to lead everyday but at lower amounts?

What matters most is how much lead accumulates in your body. Usually, high levels of lead in the body result from repeated or continuous exposure to a source of led, due to ones occupation or environment. Blood lead levels on the order of 40 mcg/dL can lead to symptoms and signs of lead poisoning, such as high blood pressure, problems with nerves, movement problems and tremors, headaches, loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, aches in muscles and joints, behavioral changes, trouble concentrating, gout, kidney troubles, constipation, and anemia. However, if the level of lead in your blood is above 5 mcg/dL, but far below 40 mcg/dL, this can still be harmful to the baby, even if you may not experience symptoms. 

Is it ok to be exposed to lead after the first trimester?

Lead accumulates in the body and exposure in the mother can lead to problems in the development of the baby’s brain.This can lead to reduced intelligence (showing up as a loss of IQ points and difficulties in school).

Can a baby go through lead withdrawal after birth?

No. Withdrawal is a phenomenon that develops only after an agent has been producing a pharmacological effect by interacting with proteins called receptors on the surfaces of nerve cells.

How will I know if lead has hurt my baby?

Every pregnancy begins with a 2 3.5 percent chance of a birth defect, independent of consumption of particular foods. However, if you are found to suffer from lead toxicity (lead poisoning) and your baby develops a birth defect with a known association to lead exposure, the chances of the lead being the reason will be high.

Is there any hope for a baby who has been exposed to lead throughout pregnancy?

If you only show slightly elevated lead levels in your blood (the most common scenario), it is very likely that the baby will turn out fine. If you suffer from severe led toxicity, the baby may be at great risk and this would also be a major health problem for you.

Can I be exposed to lead while breastfeeding?

While in the breastfeeding stage, you should apply the same guidelines regarding lead exposure that you have applied throughout pregnancy. This means avoiding occupations and hobbies that might expose you to lead more than others of the population are usually exposed. If your occupation has a risk of lead exposure, occupational health and safety rules require that your employer release you from the activity for the duration of the pregnancy and while you are breastfeeding.

What if the father of the baby is exposed to lead prior to conception?

Rodent studies suggest that lead poisoning can have a negative impact on the integrity of DNA in sperm cells. This may possibly reduce the fertility of your male partner, thereby making it more difficult for you to become pregnant in the first place. It is not thought to increase the risk of birth defects, since sperm with this type of DNA damage should not produce viable embryos if they can fertilize an egg. If such damaged sperm do produce embryos, these
would be the type of embryo that the body aborts early in pregnancy, meaning that there is reason (albeit untested) for suspecting that lead poisoning in a male could increase the chances of early pregnancy loss (spontaneous abortion, miscarriage).

Resources on exposure to lead in pregnancy:

For more information about lead poisoning during pregnancy, contact http://www.womenshealth.gov/ (800-994-9662 [TDD: 888-220-5446] or check the following links:

 

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General information

It is very common for women to worry about having a miscarriage or giving birth to a child with a birth defect while they are pregnant. Many decisions that women make about their health during pregnancy are made with these concerns in mind.

For many women these concerns are very real. As many as 1 in 5 pregnancies end in a miscarriage, and 1 in 33 babies are born with a birth defect. These rates are considered the background population risk, which means they do not take into consideration anything about the health of the mom, the medications she is taking, or the family history of the mom or the baby’s dad. A number of different things can increase these risks, including taking certain medications during pregnancy.

It is known that most medications, including over-the-counter medications, taken during pregnancy do get passed on to the baby. Fortunately, most medicines are not harmful to the baby and can be safely taken during pregnancy. But there are some that are known to be harmful to a baby’s normal development and growth, especially when they are taken during certain times of the pregnancy. Because of this, it is important to talk with your doctor or midwife about any medications you are taking, ideally before you even try to get pregnant.

If a doctor other than the one caring for your pregnancy recommends that you start a new medicine while you are pregnant, it is important that you let them know you are pregnant.

If you do need to take a new medication while pregnant, it is important to discuss the possible risks the medicine may pose on your pregnancy with your doctor or midwife. They can help you understand the benefits and the risks of taking the medicine.

Ultimately, the decision to start, stop, or change medications during pregnancy is up to you to make, along with input from your doctor or midwife. If you do take medications during pregnancy, be sure to keep track of all the medications you are taking.


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