Background: Lead freely crosses the placenta. Consequently, gestational lead poisoning is not only harmful to the woman but also to the developing fetus, invariably producing congenital lead poisoning. The scope and consequences of severe lead poisoning in pregnancy (blood lead level > or =45 microg/dL) have not been well characterized.
Methods: We reviewed our experience in the management of women with severe gestational lead poisoning. Additionally, we reviewed the literature on this disorder in an effort to identify patterns in etiology and outcome.
Results: Over a 3-year period treatment was provided to 7 severely lead-poisoned women. A 25-year review of the medical literature identified an additional 8 cases. Among these 15 women, 70% were Hispanic, all of whom developed lead poisoning from the ingestion of soil, clay, or pottery ("tierra"). Other sources of lead poisoning were paint chip ingestion (n = 2), household renovation, and use of a complementary-alternative medication (bone meal). Lead poisoning was discovered in the third trimester in 12 (86%) subjects after the women presented with subtle but characteristic findings of severe lead poisoning, including malaise, anemia, or basophilic stippling on blood smear; one woman was identified when she presented after a generalized seizure, having a blood lead level of 104 microg/dL. Five women received chelation therapy during pregnancy with CaNa(2) EDTA, dimercaprol, or succimer. At delivery mean maternal blood lead level was 55 microg/dL, whereas mean neonatal lead level was 74 microg/dL (P =.009). Thirteen neonates underwent chelation, all within the first 28 days of life. No infant in the current series had an identifiable birth defect.
Conclusions: On the basis of this experience we conclude that severe lead poisoning in pregnant women has the following characteristics: 1) it most often occurs because of intentional pica, 2) its presenting features are subtle, often consisting only of malaise and anemia, and 3) blood lead levels in the neonate are higher than simultaneous maternal lead levels.