Lead and other Toxic Exposures to Pregnant Women Triples Risk of Schizophrenia for Child

Recent studies have indicated that children who born to mothers who are exposed to toxic agents (such as the lead in gasoline and paint, or (independently) alcohol) during the pregnancy are up to 300% more likely to develop schizophrenia. Even small amounts of a damaging chemical at a crucial stage in fetal development can cause neurons in an infant's brain to commit suicide at accelerated rates. The new insight suggests that a single mechanism may lie at the heart of a wide spectrum of disorders, including fetal alcohol syndrome and schizophrenia. People exposed to high levels of lead in the womb were more than twice (up to 3 times) more likely to develop schizophrenia or similar disorders later in life.

Although the link has yet to be confirmed with larger studies, the researcher points out that lead inhibits brain activity in exactly the same way as alcohol does. The researchers involved in the study believe that cell suicide triggered by the lead is causing the schizophrenia.

Work from the two groups presented at the annual AAAS meeting in 2004 also raises the tantalising possibility of explaining how apparently unrelated risk factors, such as poor nutrition or infection during pregnancy, can lead to mental disorders. Susser speculates that these factors too may trigger cell suicide by slowing down the activity of neurons at a crucial time.

Adults absorb and retain very little lead from their diet, whereas children younger than age 2 can absorb and retain up to 25% of lead from their diet. Before the harmful effects of lead became known, it was widely used in such common products as gasoline, paints, water pipes, and cans (even food cans).

Children can get lead poisoning by chewing on objects coated with lead-based paint (such as cribs, toys, or windowsills). They may also play in or eat dirt that contains chips of leaded paint that have flaked off of a house.

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Possible Actions: Make extra efforts to avoid exposure to leaded gasoline and car exhaust fumes (from leaded gas/petrol or leaded paint, etc.) or similarly toxic chemicals and materials (including all alcohol) during pregnancy. Avoid other sources of lead - including leaded paint, or leaded paint dust, lead in drinking water due to old pipes, etc. Avoid ALL alcoholic drinks for several months prior to trying to become pregnant as well as during pregnancy - as research is showing that even small amounts of alcohol during pregancy can damage the child's brain. Another study has shown that alcohol during pregnancy modifies the dopamine system (a key system that is defective in people who have schizophrenia). Avoid anesthesia during pregnancy. Read up on other possible toxins and avoid them during pregnancy. Interestingly, some womens and mens hair coloring (i.e. Grecian Formula) actually have high lead contents. Avoid these pruducts during pregnancy and while breast feeding. Even houses that were painted with leaded paint 25 years ago are still a risk for preganant mothers due to the paint dust.

Make sure your house or apartment does not have excessive lead levels (in the paint). The federal government banned the sale of lead-based paint more than a quarter-century ago, but the government estimates that some 24 million homes in the U.S. still contain potentially harmful levels of lead paint. The old paint, which in many cases has never been removed, can easily get stirred up during a home renovation. Exposure to high lead concentrations can damage a person's brain and nervous system -- children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable.

Some US cities and states are actively addressing this threat. In February, 2004 New York City passed a law requiring landlords to remove lead paint and dust from pre-1960 apartments, while Michigan has its own legislation in the works. And last fall, the federal government announced a $147 million lead-safety initiative that includes looking into ways to better identify lead hazards. In other countries that don't have this awareness of the lead risk this is probably still a high risk for lead exposure and increased schizophrenia risk (countries where leaded gasoline and paint may still be in use).

Meanwhile, homeowners face a bewildering array of lead-paint testing options, including do-it-yourself kits for $10 or $20 and pricey services that use X-ray devices and lab analysis.

These tests frequently got widely conflicting results, all the way from a clean bill of health to a stern warning to arrange a cleanup that could cost thousands of dollars.

If you choose the full-service option, bargain. The rep we spoke with one company they quoted us $550 to dust-wipe eight rooms. But when we asked for a better price, he chopped off $100. The big sticker shock, however, came when his report arrived a few days later. It said that almost half of the samples exceeded federal government guidelines and recommended hiring "a certified lead contractor to clean the apartment." We called the rep, who tried to reassure us this would cost "well south of $10,000."

Experts suggest that that the do-it-yourself kits are like home pregnancy tests: not 100% accurate, but helpful for figuring out if you need to do more thorough testing.

Also - be sure to check the lead level of your water. Houses with older pipes frequently used lead, and the first rush of water that has been sitting in the pipes all night can have high levels of lead. See links below for testing labs and information.

Some Lead Information Sources:

Search Site for Finding Firms that offer Lead Paint Testing, Removal & Abatement

Supporting Research (a sample):



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