Lead is a potent neurotoxin that accumulates in soft tissues and bone over time. Lead poisoning was documented in ancient Rome, Greece, and China. Lead(II) acetate (also known as sugar of lead) was used by the Roman Empire as a sweetener for wine, and some consider this to be the cause of the dementia that affected many of the Roman Emperors.
Lead poisoning can follow from ingestion of food or water contaminated with lead or through accidental ingestion of contaminated soil, dust, or lead based paint (most cases of adult elevated blood lead levels are workplace-related). Lead affects almost every organ and system in the body, targeting primarily the central nervous system but also the cardiovascular system, kidneys, and the immune system. Long-term exposure will cause significant impairment to the nervous system, severely damage the brain and kidneys and, in cases of exposure to high lead levels, ultimately cause death. It may also cause colic-like abdominal pains, bone diseases, fractures, learning disabilities, anemia, increases in blood pressure, and weakness in fingers, wrists, or ankles.
In pregnant women, high levels of exposure to lead may lead to miscarriage. Chronic, high-level exposure in men can damage the organs responsible for sperm production.
Children are particularly susceptible to the effects of lead poisoning where, even at extremely low levels of exposure, it can cause learning disabilities and other cognitive deficits. There appears to be no detectable lower limit, below which lead has no effect on cognition. High blood and tissue levels are also associated with delayed puberty in girls.