The results of a new study suggest that low-level exposure to lead, most commonly associated with developmental disorders in children, can cause depression and panic disorders in young adults as well.
A study released in this month’s edition of the Archives of General Psychiatry looked at 1,987 adults ages 20 through 39, finding that those with the highest blood lead levels were more than twice as likely to suffer a major depressive disorder and nearly five times as likely to suffer from panic disorders as those without elevated blood lead levels.
Researchers said the correlation extended to increased lead blood levels that were generally considered safe for adults. The study is a rare look at how lead exposure can affect adults, as most research to date has been focused on the side effects of lead on children.
One of the more common causes of lead exposure in the United States is lead paint, which was banned in 1978 due to the risk of severe and permanent brain damage and developmental problems, particularly in children. However, a number of older homes still contain the toxic paint on the walls, and if it flakes or peals off, young children could ingest the paint chips or breathe dust that comes from the paint, resulting in lead poisoning.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 250,000 children in the United States have blood levels greater than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, which is the level that the CDC considers deserving of public health action.
Lead paint poisoning can result in nervous system injury, brain damage, seizures or convulsions, growth or mental retardation, coma and even death for young children. Lawsuits over lead poisoning have been filed regularly against landlords and property owners who failed to correctly clean up remnants of lead paint or properly minimize lead exposure to children living in their properties. However, there has been little in the way of lawsuits for adult lead exposure.
Researchers in the new study, who come from a number of U.S. medical schools, said that some of the elevated blood levels in young adults could be attributed to cigarette smoking as well, but pointed out that the heightened risk of depression and anxiety disorders continued even when the numbers were adjusted for smokers.