What to Know About Lead Exposure in Veterans

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 06, 2022
4 min read

Lead is everywhere in the environment. Some of it comes from past commercial activities, some from current metal processing and other industries. You might have more exposure than others because of where you live or your job, including military service. Lead exposure in veterans can cause war-related and occupational illness. 

Lead is a naturally occurring heavy metal and an ingredient in a lot of products. Until the late 1970s and early 1980s, people were exposed to lead mostly in house paint and gasoline. Lead was used for pigment in paint, to prevent rust, and to help engine performance. Because of concerns about the dangers of lead, though, the government banned leaded gasoline and paint. 

Industries still use lead today, but not as much as before. It’s a key ingredient in a few products, including:

  • Automotive batteries
  • Fishing weights
  • Building materials
  • Cable coverings
  • Collapsible tubes
  • Ceramic glazes
  • Plastics 
  • Ammunition
  • Explosives
  • Artillery
  • Airplane fuel
  • Solder for bonding metals together
  • Protective shields for X-ray machines

Some cities in the United States still have old lead pipes, which they will eventually replace with more modern supplies. 

Lead exposure occurs when you breathe in, swallow, or come into contact with lead, lead fumes, or lead dust. Lead fumes can be produced when you heat or melt metal, and lead dust spreads when you cut, sand, or melt metal or paint. 

Lead dust settles on your clothes, shoes, and body and absorbs through your skin. You can breathe in these metal particles if you eat, drink, or smoke around lead fumes or dust. You can also ingest it by drinking contaminated water or if you touch your food or face without washing your hands after handling lead.

Lead exposure happens in the military and comes from ammunition, artillery, explosives, and other products. If you spent long days in firing ranges as part of a special operations unit, you might have been exposed to lead. This can include handling lead bullets, breathing in lead dust after firing ammunition or other heavy weapons, or absorbing lead dust through your clothes and skin.

Other forms of lead exposure occur if you are:

  • Drinking water from old lead pipes
  • Torching or sanding surfaces with lead paint
  • Around deteriorating lead paint
  • Sitting in or working around tanks with lead linings
  • Working on radiators
  • Installing or working on lead pipes
  • Working with solder
  • Breathing in lead fumes from airplane fuel
  • Shot, leaving bullets or fragments in your body

You or a partner can also track lead dust home from a military site without knowing. 

The health effects of lead exposure are the same no matter how you come into contact with it, but you absorb more lead when you breathe it in. While lead exposure is dangerous for adults, it’s very dangerous for children. Even a low level of lead can cause serious health problems for children. 

Once lead enters your body, it absorbs into your organs and tissues and binds to your red blood cells and different proteins. 

You will eventually get rid of lead via your urine, sweat, and feces, once the lead exposure stops, or you may store it in your bones, and as they break down and lose mass with age, they will release lead into your body. Consequently, your own body can become a long-term source of exposure even after you get rid of the lead in your environment. 

Long-term overexposure to lead damages your body and can cause health problems like:

If you’re exposed to very high levels of lead in a short time, you can get lead poisoning. Lead poisoning causes:

  • Brain damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Anemia
  • Weakness
  • Death 

Lead can also harm pregnant women and unborn babies. It can cross the placenta and damage your baby’s nervous system, and it can cause stillbirth and pregnancy loss. Exposed men can also end up with sperm problems and infertility. 

Lead affects your entire body and can cause a range of symptoms. These symptoms sometimes don’t happen right away and might only show up when your blood lead level gets very high. Symptoms can also seem like other conditions. 

Long-term exposure to lead can cause symptoms like:

  • Personality changes
  • Mood changes
  • Learning problems
  • Trouble concentrating 
  • Stomachaches
  • Weakness in your ankles, wrists, and fingers
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • High blood pressure
  • Anemia

Symptoms of lead poisoning after exposure to very high levels include:

  • Headache
  • Tiredness
  • Constipation
  • Stomach pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weakness
  • Tingling or pain in your hands and feet
  • Memory loss

Treatment starts with removing the source of lead in your environment. Low lead exposure and mild damage can often get better once you get rid of the lead. If you have lead in your bones, you might not get away from it, though. People who have osteoporosis, undergo menopause, or are aging might be at risk as bones naturally demineralize during this time. 

Lead treatment can also include regular monitoring. If you think you’ve been exposed, tell your doctor. They’ll perform blood tests to check lead levels in your body and might retest after treatment or periodically to monitor your status. 

Other treatments include:

  • ChelationUsed for high blood levels of lead, this therapy is medication you take that binds lead so you can get rid of it in your urine. 
  • EDTA therapy. EDTA, or calcium disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, is another chelation medication used when you can’t tolerate regular chelation medications.
  • Vitamins. Iron, calcium, and zinc supplements are used to restore low levels caused by lead or after chelation.
  • Surgery. Your doctor might want to remove any lead bullets or fragments still in your body. 

Lead exposure can cause lasting damage and serious health problems. If you think you have lead toxicity, talk to your doctor and your local Veterans Affairs health coordinator if applicable. You might be eligible for disability benefits for lead exposure during military service.