Lead Contamination

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Research Question: How deeply has lead contamination and poisoning affected Wisconsin inhabitants and wildlife in the past and present?

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An early, "badger-type" lead mine in Eastern Wisconsin. Safety concerns at the time of this photo (1930) were largely non-existent regarding leads' debilitating characteristics. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society - Lead Mine Interior:3785 [1]

Lead Contamination, and subcategories of contamination such as lead poisoning, encompasses the direct and indirect effects of high concentrations of lead within the environment. Lead is found naturally throughout Earth's crust and had affected mankind little until the recent utilization of lead beginning roughly 6,000 years ago. Lead's reputation as a highly sought after metal began after metal smiths discovered many attractive qualities including high malleability, a low melting point, high corrosion resistance and relatively low cost to mine and refine. [1] Lead toxicity was noted and recorded as far back as the days of ancient Egypt, where scrolls detailed lead compounds as having useful properties for homicidal purposes.[2] Lead compounds may still be found in many commonly used items today, such as paint and gasoline, though lead concentrations worldwide have fallen greatly thanks in part to governmental oversight and health conscious practices.

Health Effects

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Dense Metaphyseal bands along the distal ends of the femur characteristic of lead poisoning. Source: [2]

Generally speaking, the adverse effects of lead poisoning on both humans and wildlife affect a wide range of systems and may be deemed anywhere from mild to severe, depending on exposure level and time. To be clear, there is no level in which lead exposure may be deemed "safe"; as such, any exposure to lead may be considered severe.[3] Children are the most susceptible group to harm from lead, overwhelmingly from over-exposure to lead paints and dyes. This is primarily due to lead's nature as a cumulative toxicant, a harmful substance that continuously builds in the body over time.[4] It is because of leads ability to accumulate over time that lead poisoning may go unnoticed in younger children until more pronounced and severe symptoms begin to show. Some of these symptoms include, but are not entirely limited to, permanent brain and nervous system damage, impeded development and learning and behavior problems (including issues resulting from speech, hearing and eye impairment).[5] Adults affected by enhanced blood levels of lead, measured in mcg/dL (micrograms per deciliter), may experience any number of symptoms not immediately tied to lead poisoning, including depression, lethargy, fatigue, and nausea among other rather ambiguous signs.[6] While elevated blood levels of lead are not quite as serious in adults as in children, vulnerable subgroups, such as pregnant women and those suffering from bone-related disease, will experience heightened symptoms of comparable levels of lead due to leads tendency to store and accumulate in bone.[7] Wildlife is no exception to this rule. Aquatic species and many bird species, such as the waterfowl, may experience any number of debilitating disorders, from lethargy and weakness to lesions and preferred isolation.[8]

General History

Lead is a metal with no known biologically beneficial characteristics. However, its use in the industrial world is quite prevalent thanks to leads inherent useful qualities mentioned previously. Throughout history, nearly every major civilization has come into contact with or utilized lead in some fashion, starting with the Ancient Egyptians. Used primarily in the creation of jewelry, cutlery, earthenware and, interestingly enough, as a food additive, lead and its uses were numerous enough that nearly every population on the planet, regardless of isolation, experience trace amounts of lead in the bloodstream. As time went on, advancement in tool making, infrastructure and technology allowed for a wider use of lead in construction, medicine and travel.[9] This would, of course, also lead to the epidemic of lead poisoning found in the pre-industrialization era (~<1900). First described as "miner's disease", so aptly named for poisoning occurring most frequently during the mining and refining of lead, doctor's in the early 16th century would go on to describe colic-like symptoms among trade workers that induced uncontrollable spasms, muscle pain and arthritic joint discomfort. This link would be expanded upon in 1831 by the French physician Rene Laennec and the diagnosis of lead poisoning would be well-documented and diagnosed in 1839 by another French physician,Louis Tanquerel des Planches, in one of his most famous works, Traite des maladies de plomb ou saturnines (Run on sentence, maybe split it into 2 sentences).[10]

History in Wisconsin

Lead use in Wisconsin, while not entirely well documented, can be traced as far back as most any other state. Lead mining was quite the popular alternative to fur trading and farming and would see almost 4,000 miners flock to Southwestern Wisconsin in the 1830's and 1840's.[11] Native American Land ceded to the US government between 1804 and 1832 would incidentally coincide with a massive influx of lead miners looking to strike it rich. Peak output of these mines would be reached in only 10-15 years thereafter and in the late 1840's, with much of the easily obtainable lead ore having been mined, many miners abandoned their posts or quickly made way to California to experience the gold rush of 1849.[12] During the US Civil Car, lead output increased considerably to maintain pace with ammunition and equipment supplies. With the onset of the industrial revolution occurring shortly after the American Civil War, many machines, tools and various trinkets were constructed using lead.[13] These practices would inevitably harm the local wildlife and civilian population in relatively unnoticed ways for quite a few decades, although, it was generally understood that working in a field involving any number of uses of lead would result in debilitating sickness. Charles Dickens would even write of this issue when commenting on women workers in white lead mills, noting: "her brain is coming out her ear and it hurts her dreadful."[14] Lead was understood to have some effect on the reproductive system since the middle of the 18th century, though, the connection was not completely elaborated upon until the 1930's and 1940's where health regulators began enacting laws aimed at preventing lead poisoning. Women workers in Wisconsin (and even wives of workers) were continuously exposed to lead particulates in both the air and food. Much of this poisoning stemmed from lead workers returning home with lead particles still on their clothes. This exposure would inevitably cause a significant drop in reproduction rates among smaller pockets of lead mining towns between the 1880's and 1940's.[15] Wildlife would eventually begin to feel the sting of lead poisoning as well. Nearly all wildlife suffers from exposure to lead in the environment, though none have been affected more than local fish and waterfowl populations. The connection between the two is rather ambiguous until closer inspection. For decades, bird shot was smithed using lead as a cheaper alternative to the more expensive iron and steel options. For this very reason, bird shot left in carcasses and bb's that would miss their mark ended up in hundreds of different bodies of water all throughout Wisconsin.[16] This lead shot would sit and corrode in these bodies of water for years before dissipating to a tolerable level. In this time, an untold number of whistling swans, bluegill, mallard and any number of both bird and fish species had been poisoned and are still experiencing the effects even today.

Usage and Modern Prevalence

Today, lead mining and use has gone down considerably from years before. Testing performed by both the CDC and Wisconsin Department of Health has noted wide reductions in lead poisoning and exposure in children younger than 12. In a research survey done in 12 different Wisconsin counties, over 8,000 children were tested for potential lead poisoning, in both poverty stricken and upper class areas. The survey found that anywhere from 0% to 1.5% of children tested were showing blood levels indicative of lead poisoning. Of these children, over 85% were from poverty stricken areas, where houses built before 1950 (cutoff for lead piping) are common.[17] Relatively newer regulatory institutions, such as the Occupational Health and Safety Organization and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, both aim to curb lead exposure by promoting healthier workplace practices and vetting child toys such as fake jewelry and play sets respectively.[18] Owing to the push for greater regulation in the late 1980's, wildlife populations have experienced greater protection from lead exposure as well. The culmination of these efforts resulted in the 1991 ban on lead in the creation of bird shot. This has greatly affected wildlife throughout the US, including in Wisconsin, where hunting waterfowl is quite common given the geographical layout.[19]

References

  1. Needleman, Herbert. History of Lead Poisoning in the World. Journal of the American Medical Association, 1996. (Accessed November 30, 2017).
  2. Hernberg, Sven. "Lead poisoning in a historical perspective." American Journal of Industrial Medicine 38, no. 3 (2000): 243-244. Accessed December 12, 2017. doi:10.1002/1097-0274(200009)38:3<244::aid-ajim3>3.0.co;2-f.
  3. "Lead poisoning and health." World Health Organization. August 2017. Accessed December 6, 2017. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs379/en/.
  4. "Lead poisoning and health." World Health Organization. August 2017. Accessed December 8, 2017. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs379/en/.
  5. "Childhood Lead Poisoning Data, Statistics, and Surveillance." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 01, 2016. Accessed December 7, 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/data/index.htm.
  6. Spivey, Angela. "The Weight of Lead: Effects Add Up In Adults." Environmental Health Perspectives 115, no. 1 (January 01, 2007): 1. Accessed December 2, 2017. doi:10.1289/ehp.115-a30.
  7. Spivey, Angela. "The Weight of Lead: Effects Add Up In Adults." Environmental Health Perspectives 115, no. 1 (January 01, 2007): 4-5. Accessed December 2, 2017. doi:10.1289/ehp.115-a30.
  8. "Concerns Rise Over Known and Potential Impacts of Lead on Wildlife." USGS National Wildlife Health Center - Lead Poisoning. May 19, 2016. Accessed December 10, 2017. https://www.nwhc.usgs.gov/disease_information/lead_poisoning/.
  9. Hernberg, Sven. "Lead poisoning in a historical perspective." American Journal of Industrial Medicine 38, no. 3 (2000): 242-243. Accessed December 12, 2017. doi:10.1002/1097-0274(200009)38:3<244::aid-ajim3>3.0.co;2-f.
  10. Hernberg, Sven. "Lead poisoning in a historical perspective." American Journal of Industrial Medicine 38, no. 3 (2000): 245. Accessed December 12, 2017. doi:10.1002/1097-0274(200009)38:3<244::aid-ajim3>3.0.co;2-f.
  11. "Lead Mining in Southwestern Wisconsin." Lead Mining in Southwestern Wisconsin |Turning Points in Wisconsin History | Wisconsin Historical Society. Accessed December 19, 2017. https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/tp-026/?action=more_essay.
  12. "Lead Mining in Southwestern Wisconsin." Lead Mining in Southwestern Wisconsin |Turning Points in Wisconsin History | Wisconsin Historical Society. Accessed December 19, 2017. https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/tp-026/?action=more_essay.
  13. "Lead Mining in Southwestern Wisconsin." Lead Mining in Southwestern Wisconsin |Turning Points in Wisconsin History | Wisconsin Historical Society. Accessed December 19, 2017. https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/tp-026/?action=more_essay.
  14. Needleman, Herbert. History of Lead Poisoning in the World. Journal of the American Medical Association, 1996. (Accessed November 30, 2017).
  15. Hernberg, Sven. "Lead poisoning in a historical perspective." American Journal of Industrial Medicine 38, no. 3 (2000): 246-248. Accessed December 12, 2017. doi:10.1002/1097-0274(200009)38:3<244::aid-ajim3>3.0.co;2-f.
  16. Trainer, Daniel O., and Richard A. Hunt. "Lead Poisoning of Waterfowl in Wisconsin." The Journal of Wildlife Management 29, no. 1 (1965): 95. Accessed December 12, 2017. doi:10.2307/3798637.
  17. "Lead Poisoning Data and Data Analysis." Wisconsin Department of Health Services. September 14, 2016. Accessed December 19, 2017. https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/lead/data.htm.
  18. "Business Education." CPSC.gov. Accessed December 19, 2017. https://www.cpsc.gov/Business--Manufacturing/Business-Education/Lead/.
  19. "Concerns Rise Over Known and Potential Impacts of Lead on Wildlife." USGS National Wildlife Health Center - Lead Poisoning. May 19, 2016. Accessed December 10, 2017. https://www.nwhc.usgs.gov/disease_information/lead_poisoning/.

Additional Published Resources

  • Hernberg, Sven. Lead Poisoning in a Historical Perspective. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 2000. (Accessed November 30, 2017).
  • Needleman, Herbert. History of Lead Poisoning in the World. Journal of the American Medical Association, 1996. (Accessed November 30, 2017).

Archival Resources for Further Research

Multiple articles, journals and historical pictures involving the history of lead and Wisconsin may be found at Wisconsin Historical Society - Lead

Article History

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