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One of the four most-used metallic elements, symbol Pb. It's a bluish-grey, in colour, and the heaviest, softest and weakest of the common metals.

Lead is a highly toxic element, which can be harmful in very small amounts, while larger quantities can be fatal. Its sources in the environment are many - car fumes, cigarette smoking and industrial emissions are just a few - and lead pipes still exist in some old houses. Inhaled lead is the most dangerous because it's absorbed in the body much more efficiently than ingested lead.

Lead attacks the brain causing apathy, depression, nervousness, mental retardation in adults and hyperactivity in children. Higher levels of poisoning can cause sterility, hypertension and death.

There are various nutrients that can help to prevent the build-up of lead in the body. For example, calcium prevents lead accumulation, vitamin C neutralises lead, vitamin A activates the enzymes that prevent lead absorption and kelp contains sodium alginate which combines with lead and excretes it through the bowels. Some cases of lead poisoning have been found to respond to penicillamine, a chelating agent that binds with lead, increasing its elimination in the urine. For more information on nutrition see 'Nutrients A-Z' by Dr. Michael Sharon (Prion Books)

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