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  QUESTION: When can we safely conceive? Male PbB of 2.29 µmol/L, 03 Dec 2005, New South Wales Australia

Following house renovations, my partner and I have discovered we have increased blood lead levels (although neither of us noticed any particular symptoms). My partner, who is 52, recorded a level of 2.29 (I think this is µmol/L micromoles per litre?). I am 33, and my level is 0.84. Our local GPs don't seem to know much, and we are anxious to get more information. My partner has been having some pain in his back, and of course we immediately wonder if this could be kidney problems, but we haven't been given any indication of what to look out for or to do.

We had also been planning to start a family after the house renovation. Having read a bit more widely, however, I'm now concerned about what these levels may mean for a future pregnancy. I have read suggestions that increased lead levels in the father may impact on a foetus. Do you have any specific information on this?

I'm aware that the recommended level before a woman becomes pregnant is 0.48. Yet I'm also told the average in the current population is 0.72. Lead level doesn't seem to be one of the routine tests for women who are pregnant or planning to be. Can you tell me exactly what the increase in risk is likely to be at my level (0.84)?

Not only have we finished the renovations, but we are shortly moving to a new home. We live in the country and have no other exposures, and we are both otherwise very fit and healthy. How long is it likely to take for our levels to decline, and is there anything we can do to hasten the process? And finally, can you recommend a medical professional for us to see (we live in north-east NSW, and could get to either Sydney or Brisbane if necessary).

I apologise for the rather lengthy list of questions, but we've found it very difficult to obtain specific information on what to do if you have high levels (although plenty on how to avoid it). I would really appreciate your help - either by e-mail or post. Thank you.

ANSWER: 05 Dec 2005

Dear Madam,

many apologies for the delay in responding to your important questions. If only we had funding for wages here, I assure you the delay would not occur. Your partner mentioned on the phone that you had asked the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) about the dangers of lead in renovation at the beginning of the period in which you were renovating, and you had gained the impression from their answer, that only people who were pregnant or had young children need be concerned about lead. If this is the answer that the NSW EPA gave you, then I hope you are as angry about that (wrong advice) as I am and will therefore let the EPA know your current predicament. If they give wrong advice and then can't help you with the problem that you find yourself in as a result of following that advice, then the least they can do is adequately fund the only community service in Australia which is dedicated to helping lead poisoned people and giving the right advice in the first place in order to prevent lead poisoning and lead contamination. Don't you agree? Are you prepared to follow up on this? Please let me know and I'll endeavour to help with your complaint / suggestion to EPA in any way I can.

The best guess I can offer on how long it will take for your blood lead levels to decline if the only thing you do is remove yourselves from the sources of lead is that the blood lead level tends to halve every 6 months. As I explained to your partner on the phone, it is preferable that both parents have a lead in blood level (PbB) less than 0.48 micromoles per litre (µmol/L) prior to conception and it is particularly important for the male to be under this level for the full four months that it takes for sperm to develop ie four months prior to conception. Thus, in your case, your partner's PbB is the critical one that needs to be rapidly reduced. Unfortunately, he is also at an age when the "normal" trend in blood lead levels tends to be upwards. Bringing down a blood lead level at a time when bones may be starting to demineralise (thus adding some of the lead he has accumulated in his bones over a lifetime back into his bloodstream) is particularly challenging and the best advice I can give is to eat well (see "Fight Lead Poisoning with a Healthy Diet" at www.epa.gov/lead/pubs/nutrition.pdf) and find a doctor you trust who knows something about lead poisoning. Only a wholistic doctor or alternative doctor would treat you or your partner for lead poisoning so your best option is to contact ACNEM (Australasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine), see Practitioner Listing or email: [email protected] or phone 0395896088 to ask for your closest doctor who has been trained to carry out chelation therapy. Additionally, you could contact High Tech Health to find your closest practitioner who runs a clinic where QRS or Far Infrared Sauna treatments are available OR you could purchase the equipment from High Tech Health to carry out these treatments at home. EMAIL: [email protected] WEB: www.hightechhealth.com.au or phone them on 1800 505 108.

Whoever told you that the average blood lead level in the Australian population is 0.72 µmol/L doesn't know what they are talking about. No-one knows the average blood lead level in the Australian population because our governments have NEVER BOTHERED TO DO A SURVEY. The average blood lead level in the US population aged one year and older in 1994 was around 0.11 µmol/L (2.3 µg/dl to be precise) (see Exposure of the U.S. Population to Lead, 1991-1994 By J L. Pirkle, R B. Kaufmann, D J. Brody, T. Hickman, E W. Gunter, D C. Paschal. Environ Health Perspect 106:745-750.) and although our governments have been particularly slack at regulating lead or educating the population or doctors or their own staff about lead, not even I would predict the average blood lead level in Australia is as high as 0.72 µmol/L. Having our priorities set on exporting more lead rather than the health of the Australian or global population who will be exposed to our lead, I would expect that we are probably ten years behind the US in achieving lower blood lead levels in the population. Thus the 1994 US survey results (see Table 4 from the NIEHS web address above - also attached) are probably our best guide to blood lead levels in Australia in 2004.

The level of 0.72 µmol/L is the notifiable blood lead level in NSW (and Queensland and Tasmania) but no other state government cares enough to have made lead poisoning a notifiable disease. This means it is one and a half times the level that the entire population should be below (the National Health and Medical Research Council goal is for all Australians to have a blood lead level below 0.48 µmol/L).

IF blood lead testing was standard for all adults who were planning to conceive and all women who were pregnant, then there would also be enough information by correlating pregnancy outcomes with blood lead level and allowing for other factors, to answer your question on the exact risk of having a blood lead level of 0.84 µmol/L. If you'd like to campaign to increase blood lead screening for at-risk populations, I'd be very keen to hear from you. One recent study by Opler et al found a link approaching statistical validity, between foetal lead poisoning (the equivalent of a level above 0.72 µmol/L) and schizophrenia later in life. See Prenatal Lead Exposure, ƍ-Aminolevulinic Acid, and Schizophrenia By Mark G.A. Opler, Alan S. Brown, Joseph Graziano, Manisha Desai, Wei Zheng, Catherine Schaefer, Pamela Factor-Litvak, Ezra S. Susser. Environ Health Perspect 112:548-552. 2004. So I'd be very interested in for instance, a retrospective study looking at blood lead levels and the prevalence of schizophrenia in Broken Hill in NSW or Port Pirie in SA - respectively the world's largest sources of mined and smelted lead.

There's so much to be done about lead poisoning in our country and the lead poisoning caused by Australian lead in the world, sometimes I get a bit lost on where to begin. I hope this email has been helpful to you but please keep in touch. Together we CAN change the world.

Yours Sincerely
Elizabeth O'Brien,

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