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Lead and immune function


The heavy metal lead is a widely deposited environmental toxicant known to impact numerous physiological systems, including the reproductive, neurological, hepatic, renal, and immune systems. Studies illustrating the capacity of lead to impair immune function and/or host resistance to disease date back to at least the 1960s. However, it has only been in recent years that lead has been recognized among a new category of immunotoxicants-those that dramatically shift immune functional capacity while producing only modest changes to immune cell populations and lymphoid organs. These relatively noncytotoxic immunomodulating chemicals and drugs represent the immunotoxic hazards most difficult to identify and problematic for risk assessment using historic approaches. As a result, such environmental factors are also among the most likely to contribute to chronic immune-related disease at relevant exposure levels. This review considers the animal and human evidence that lead exposure can produce a stark shift in immune functional capacity with a skewing predicted to elevate the risk of atopic and certain autoimmune diseases. At the same time, host defenses against infectious agents and cancer may be reduced. Age-based exposure studies also suggest that levels of blood lead previously thought to be safe, that is, below 10 microg/dl, may be associated with later life immune alterations.



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