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A 48-year-old painter is referred for evaluation of recent onset of severe abdominal pains, headaches, and myalgias. For the last week, he has been removing old paint from an iron bridge using grinding tools and a blow torch. His employer states that all the bridge workers are provided with the equivalent of “hazmat” (hazardous materials) suits. What tests should be carried out? Assuming positive test results, what therapy would be appropriate?

Some metals such as iron are essential for life, whereas others such as lead are present in all organisms but serve no useful biologic purpose. Some of the oldest diseases of humans can be traced to heavy metal poisoning associated with metal mining, refining, and use. Even with the present recognition of the hazards of heavy metals, the incidence of intoxication remains significant, and the need for preventive strategies and effective therapy remains high. Toxic heavy metals interfere with the function of essential cations, cause enzyme inhibition, generate oxidative stress, and alter gene expression. As a result, multisystem signs and symptoms are a hallmark of heavy metal intoxication.

When intoxication occurs, chelator molecules (from chela “claw”), or their in vivo biotransformation products, may be used to bind the metal and facilitate its excretion from the body. Chelator drugs are discussed in the second part of this chapter.



Lead poisoning is one of the oldest occupational and environmental diseases in the world. Despite its recognized hazards, lead continues to have widespread commercial application, including production of storage batteries (nearly 90% of US consumption), ammunition, metal alloys, solder, glass, plastics, pigments, and ceramics. Corrosion of lead plumbing in older buildings or supply lines may increase the lead concentration of tap water. Environmental lead exposure, ubiquitous by virtue of the anthropogenic distribution of lead to air, water, and food, has declined considerably in the last three decades as a result of the elimination of lead as an additive in gasoline, as well as diminished contact with lead-based paint and other lead-containing consumer products, such as lead solder in cans used as food containers. Lead continues to be used in some formulations of aviation gasoline for piston-engine aircraft. The presence of lead in certain folk medicines (eg, the Mexican remedies azarcon and greta, and certain Ayurvedic preparations) and in cosmetics (eg, kohl utilized around the eyes in certain African and Asian communities) has contributed to lead exposure to children and adults. Although public health measures, together with improved workplace conditions, have decreased the incidence of serious overt lead poisoning, there remains considerable concern over the effects of low-level lead exposure. Extensive evidence indicates that low levels of lead exposure may have subtle subclinical adverse effects on neurocognitive function in children and may contribute to hypertension and cardiovascular disease in adults. Lead serves no useful purpose in the human ...

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