drugs: Smoking marijuana could lead to lead
poisoning. Doctors in Germany have linked a mysterious outbreak of lead
intoxication to contaminated street supplies of marijuana.
In a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, Franziska Busse,
MD, of the University Hospital Leipzig and colleagues detail a puzzling
occurrence of lead poisoning symptoms over a 3- to 4-month period among
patients aged 16 to 33 years old. Twenty-nine patients at four different
hospitals had abdominal cramps, nausea, fatigue , and anemia -- classic
signs and symptoms of lead intoxication.
Yet the source of the lead remained inexplicable. After eight weeks of
investigation, Busse and colleagues finally found a common link: all of the
patients admitted to smoking pot on a regular basis, either in joint form or
through a water pipe.
Tests done on remaining supplies from some patients revealed traces of lead
particles mixed with the marijuana leaves. Lead's grayish color allowed the
metal to blend easily with the illicit drug. The large size of lead particles
found in one package strongly suggested that the poisoning did not result from
soil contamination. Busse writes that police suspect street dealers of
deliberately lacing street bags of marijuana with the toxic metal in an effort
to increase profits. The weight of the lead particles found in the supplies
studied would roughly translate into a profit of $1,500 per kilogram of
An anonymous screening program involving 145 people ultimately showed that
about two-thirds of the participants had high levels of lead in their blood,
requiring treatment. For example, a male patient who smoked nine joints a week
had a blood lead level nearly 50 times greater than normal.
Lead poisoning can have serious effects on every part of the body. It can
damage the nervous system, impair fertility , and lead to memory
and concentration problems. Severe lead poisoning can lead to death. Smoking
lead is particularly dangerous, because it allows the metal to be easily
absorbed into the airways.
The letter appears in the April 10 issue of the New England Journal
By Kelli Stacy
Reviewed by Louise Chang
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