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The Burton line is a very thin, bluish-purple line that is found in a person's gums as a clinical indicator of lead poisoning. It sits at the junction of the teeth and gums, and it usually covers the distance of two or more teeth. The Burton line is caused by lead sulfide, which is created by the extra lead in the body reacting with sulfur ions that are released by bacteria in the mouth. Although the Burton line is a very good indicator of lead poisoning, it does not appear in every case, making it a useful diagnostic tool but not a definitive one. The only sure way for lead poisoning to be diagnosed is through a blood test.
Lead is a natural mineral in the Earth's crust. Mining, burning fossil fuels and manufacturing have made exposure to lead more prevalent. Lead paint and leaded gasoline — two major lead-based products — have been outlawed in some countries. Lead still is used, however, in products such as batteries, solder, piping, pottery and some roofing materials. In some countries, home remedies containing lead are used for everyday problems such as upset stomach, nausea, colic, indigestion and teething babies.
Children who are less than 6 years old are much more susceptible to lead poisoning than adults are. Young children's most common exposure to lead is through eating pieces of lead-based paint or through dust or soil that is contaminated with lead. Some symptoms of lead poisoning in children include developmental problems, irritability, weight loss, abdominal pain and vomiting. Adults typically are exposed to lead through batteries, home renovations, hobbies or working in auto repair shops. Symptoms of lead poisoning in adults include increased blood pressure, decreased mental function, numb or tingling extremities, low sperm count in men and miscarriage or giving premature birth in women.
The only way for lead poisoning to be accurately diagnosed is with a blood test. Children who live in or frequently are in a home that was built before 1950 should be tested, as should children who have a sibling who has lead poisoning. Adults who have symptoms of lead poisoning or have a Burton line on their gums should be tested. Lead in the blood in micrograms per deciliter, and a level that is at or above 10 micrograms per deciliter is considered unsafe.
The treatment for lead poisoning is often as simple as removing or avoiding the source of lead. This can mean repainting an old piece, dusting more or finding a new hobby. For blood levels more than 45 micrograms per deciliter, a treatment called chelation therapy is used.
In chelation therapy, a medication is given either orally or intravenously, and it binds to the lead and causes it to be excreted through the urine. With higher blood levels, even though the lead might be removed from the body, the damage that has been done might not be reversible. After excess lead is removed, the Burton line also will disappear if it was present.