How High Lead Levels Affect Mental Health


It seems like common sense now that toxins, like lead, in our water are “bad” – but what does that really mean? What do these toxins actually do to adversely affect our health?

We came across the study Blood lead levels and major depressive disorder, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder in U.S. young adults published by the National Institute of Health that highlights the impact of elevated lead levels in young adults 20 – 39 years of age, and we can’t get over how little this topic is discussed when it comes to our health and wellness (read the full study). This study was published nearly 10 years ago now, and yet we continue to experience lead exposure through our infrastructure and tap water.

One of the most staggering results from this study is that people in the highest percentile of blood-lead levels were at 2.3 times increased risk to have a major depressive disorder and 4.9 times increased risk to experience a major panic disorder than those with the lowest lead exposure. Lead exposure affects the catecholamine neurotransmitters in the brain, which consist of dopamine (the happiness effect) and epinephrine (the energy boost, adrenaline) – a lack of these chemicals in the brain results in an elevated state of depression and/or anxiety.

Studies conducted on lead exposure have typically been studying groups of people with an obviously higher exposure through their occupations – like working in factories or mines where they are knowingly exposed to lead. But now, we’re looking at a connection between young adults in the general public and their exposure to what is accepted as a “safe” or “normal” lead level.

This indicates that no matter the precautions you may take to safeguard your mental health, like daily exercise, eating nutritious food, or meditating – you are still at a greater risk for a depression or anxiety disorder simply by nature of your environment. According to the study, elevated lead levels may trigger people who are predisposed to these conditions and the severity could be impacted as well as their response to treatment. Blood lead levels are generally lower in the United States population than they were in the 1900s, as we understand that lead is dangerous: lead pipes are no longer used in new buildings, we’ve removed lead from paint and gasoline. Clearly though, this is not enough.

In the study’s limitations, it’s indicated that the measures for current blood lead levels do not take into account the lead that is stored in our bones. We most commonly think of calcium being stored in our bones (why we all drank so much milk to build strong bones!), but in reality all kids of different minerals are stored within our skeletons – which can be both good and bad. Bones trap lead, which does help to keep the lead out of our blood stream temporarily, but as we start to lose bone density due to age (exacerbated by poor diet), that lead has to go somewhere and leeches back into the blood. Lead can be stored in the bone for anywhere from years to decades.

As we’re discovering, it’s so important to stay informed and do your best to protect yourself and your family from toxin exposure for your short term and long-term health. Many environmental factors feel beyond our control on an individual basis, but there are many positive steps you can take to ensure that your home and what you consume are toxin-free.