Lead Poisoning: It's in Your Head



Saturnism, the archaic term for lead poisoning,has been closely associated with madness throughout history. “Painter’s  madness”, or “painter’s colic” was attributed to be the cause of the early deaths and psychological struggles of famous artists, such as Van Gogh and Michelangelo, as a result of their constant exposure to lead based paints.

As part of participating with National Public Health Week, the task is to connect to specific themes about public health; today’s is mental and behavioral health. And, the connection isn’t as distant as it may seem. Saturnism is in the past in name only – lead continues to influence the mental health and development of children and adults.

Modern childhood lead poisoning doesn’t produce tortured genius, but instead potential lifelong challenges with mental health. Lead poisoning affects every physiological system in the body, and the brain and nervous system are not immune.

In Grand Rapids, thousands of kids have been and continue to be exposed to lead through paint and dust in their homes, as well as other sources. The physical symptoms of that lead exposure may be easier to spot: abdominal pain, loss of appetite, vomiting, and seizures. Other neurological symptoms attributed to lead are easily noticeable, such as learning disabilities and development delays.

However, many childhood mental health issues have been strongly correlated to lead poisoning, most notably ADHD, behavioral problems, and aggression/bullying. These problems aren’t as easily seen as symptoms of lead, and can be misunderstood by parents and health professionals.

The risk to mental health from lead poisoning doesn’t end with childhood, either. Lead poisoning has been connected to adult anxiety, depression, and drug addiction. Lead also has been frequently cited as an underlying cause for criminal activity in both juveniles and adults.

Childhood lead poisoning is a historical disease that has no place in the present. Children don’t deserve to have their physical or mental health compromised simply because of their zip code – that’s just madness.