I’ve written about the various ways veterans have been exposed to lead here and here. However, exactly what disabilities and diseases can be caused by exposure to lead? What diseases can be aggravated or worsened by lead exposure?
Both acute and chronic exposure to lead can have severe effects on the human body, and lead affects nearly every system within the body.
Lead is severely toxic to the kidneys, and in those who already have disabilities such as diabetes mellitus and hypertension that increase risk of renal disease, renal toxicity is even more likely to occur. Lead exposure can cause all sorts of kidney diseases, from inflammation to Fanconi syndrome, even gout.
In the cardiovascular system, chronic lead exposure is correlated with hypertension, coronary artery disease, abnormal heart rhythms, and stroke.
Lead exposure can also cause infertility in both men and women, and increase the risk of miscarriages and birth defects in the offspring of those exposed.
By far, the worst effects of lead are on the nervous system. Lead exposure affects both the central nervous system, as well as the peripheral nervous system. Lead damages the protective myelin sheath that protects the axon of neurons, much in the same way as demyelinating disorders such as multiple sclerosis. This can often cause peripheral neuropathy, and effect motor skills, cognition, memory, attention, and even emotion. Depression, anxiety, and even antisocial behavior correlate highly with lead exposure, and some have even blamed the decline of violence in the United States on the decline of lead use in gasoline and household paint!
It’s clear that lead exposure may be a factor in many disabilities we commonly see in veterans. This makes sense, as we’ve seen that veterans are much more likely to be acutely and chronically exposed to lead in their workplace, and even in their homes.