Methamphetamine Use and Lead Poisoning
Lead poisoning is the term used to describe damaging accumulations of the chemical element lead inside the body. If left undetected and/or uncorrected, these accumulations can trigger a range of serious health problems that includes loss of normal kidney function, nerve damage, and permanent brain damage or mental impairment, as well as death. People who use the street drug methamphetamine have heightened risks for the onset of lead poisoning. These risks don’t truly come from methamphetamine itself; instead they come from common faults in the processes that illegal manufacturers use to make the drug.
In its elemental form, lead is a soft, silvery metal that changes its shape quite easily when stretched, melted, or otherwise manipulated. Molecules of lead can also be combined with molecules of other elements and turned into substances called lead compounds; examples of these compounds include lead acetate, lead oxide, and lead carbonate. In the not-too-distant past, mass-produced products such as house paint and gasoline routinely contained significant amounts of lead compounds. A number of common products still contain considerable amounts of these compounds (or contain elemental lead), including the batteries used for various electronic devices, paints used for art, pottery glazes, the soldering used to make stained glass windows, some modern plumbing fixtures, and bowls, pitchers or utensils made from pewter. In addition, soil in many parts of the United States contains lead contaminants that have built up over previous decades.
Lead Poisoning Basics
Lead poisoning occurs when some form of elemental lead or a lead compound builds up in the body and creates a toxic reaction that damages any one of a number of vital organs or organ systems. While wary individuals can limit the possible sources of contamination by avoiding or restricting the use of lead-containing products, the general environment contains so much lead that virtually no one can completely avoid all forms of the element, the US National Library of Medicine explains. This is especially true since the lead compounds most typically associated with lead poisoning are invisible and have no distinct smell or taste.
Lead poisoning usually occurs slowly over time as a result of long-term exposure to single or multiple sources of contamination. However, some people develop a form of the condition called acute lead poisoning, which typically stems from the short-term introduction of large amounts of lead into the body. People who develop lead poisoning as a consequence of long-term exposure may experience few or no symptoms until months or years have passed, while people who develop the condition as a consequence of short-term exposure may experience obvious symptoms of lead toxicity.
Symptoms that can appear to one degree or another in connection with long- or short-term lead exposure include headaches, constipation, unusual aggressiveness, fatigue, appetite loss, sleep disturbances, abdominal cramping, abdominal pain, reduced nervous system sensitivity, and the presence of a red blood cell disorder called anemia. Symptoms especially associated with acute lead poisoning include prominent muscle weakness, loss of normal body balance, vomiting, the onset of convulsions or seizures, and the onset of the generally unresponsive state of unconsciousness known as a coma.
The Role of Methamphetamine
Since street forms of methamphetamine are illegal, drug manufacturers typically produce them in makeshift laboratories that have little or none of the organization and attention to detail found in legal commercial laboratories. In most cases, the drug manufacturers themselves have no training or professional background, and make methamphetamine by trying to follow relatively crude instructions or formulas. In addition, many of the ingredients used to make meth are highly toxic and potentially lethal if handled incorrectly, the University of Arizona explains. Among these toxic, potentially lethal ingredients is a lead compound called lead acetate.
When lead acetate is handled incorrectly during methamphetamine manufacture, the resulting product can contain enough of the compound to produce lead poisoning. Highly contaminated meth may contain enough lead acetate to trigger symptoms of acute lead poisoning, while meth with lower levels of the compound may only produce symptoms of poisoning after extended periods of habitual use. Because of the uncontrolled nature of illegal methamphetamine production, no user of the drug can predict in advance whether or not any given batch of the drug contains dangerous levels of lead acetate. In addition, no user can tell if the level of contamination in a given methamphetamine batch will trigger acute or long-term poisoning symptoms.
When lead poisoning occurs in meth users, it’s treatment can be complicated by a couple of important factors, according to the authors of Methamphetamine: Its History, Pharmacology and Treatment. First, because of the variable nature of poisoning symptoms, doctors may miss or misdiagnose the presence of lead toxicity unless they specifically look for it. In addition, meth users (and meth manufacturers) commonly avoid treatment for any ailment that may uncover their involvement with drug use or drug production; therefore, they may forego treatment for lead poisoning altogether and, as a result, suffer from advanced lead-related health complications or even die.