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Tox Town - Environmental health concerns and toxic chemicals where you live, work, and play
Leaden español
Dust from old lead-based paint is highly toxic to young children and can affect their growth.

What is lead?

Lead is a heavy, soft, bluish-gray metal that occurs naturally in the rocks and soil of the earth's crust. It is also produced from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, gasoline, and natural gas; mining; and manufacturing. Lead has no distinctive taste or smell. The chemical symbol for elemental lead is Pb

Lead is used to produce batteries, ammunition, pipes, tank linings, solder, casting metals, building construction materials, roofing, scientific electronic equipment, military tracking systems, medical devices, and products to shield X-rays and nuclear radiation. It is used in ceramic glazes and crystal glassware. 

Because of health concerns, lead and lead compounds were banned from house paint in 1978; from solder used on water pipes in 1986; from gasoline in 1995; from solder used on food cans in 1996; and from tin-coated foil on wine bottles in 1996. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has set a limit on the amount of lead that can be used in ceramics.

How might I be exposed to lead?

You can be exposed to lead if your home was built before 1978, when lead-based paints were often used, or if your home was built before 1986, when lead solder was used on water pipes. You can be exposed at home if old lead-based paints are flaking, chipping, or deteriorating into dust. Small children can be exposed to lead in paint by eating paint chips, chewing on painted objects, or swallowing house dust or soil that contains lead. 

You can be exposed to lead if you eat food or drink water that contains lead or use dishes and utensils that contain lead. Some cosmetics and health care products from outside the United States contain lead. Hobby products can contain lead, such as materials for sculpturing and staining glass. 

If lead is used where you work, you can be exposed to lead dust and fumes, especially if you are a lead refiner, miner, smelter, automobile finisher, typesetter, sheet metal worker, spray painter, or printer. You may be exposed to lead if you work in a facility that repairs radiators or makes batteries, pottery, ceramics, brass or bronze products, rubber and plastic products, and lead compounds. Families of workers may be exposed to lead when workers bring home lead dust on their work clothes. Law enforcement officers can be exposed to lead while firing weapons in an indoor firing range.

How can lead affect my health?

Lead and lead compounds are listed as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen" in the Thirteenth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program because exposure to lead has been associated with lung, stomach, and bladder cancer. Lead can affect almost every organ and system in your body. It can be equally harmful if breathed or swallowed. The part of the body most sensitive to lead exposure is the central nervous system, especially in children, who are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults. 

A child who swallows large amounts of lead can develop brain damage that can cause convulsions and death; the child can also develop blood anemia, kidney damage, colic, and muscle weakness. Repeated low levels of exposure to lead can alter a child's normal mental and physical growth and result in learning or behavioral problems. 

If you are pregnant, exposure to high levels of lead can cause miscarriage, premature births, and smaller babies. Exposure can cause decreased mental ability, learning difficulties, and reduced growth in the children exposed to lead during pregnancy. 

In adults, exposure to lead may be short-term or chronic. Repeated or chronic exposure can cause lead to accumulate in your body, leading to lead poisoning. Lead poisoning can cause metallic taste, poor appetite, weight loss, colic, upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, and muscle cramps. 

Short-term exposure to lead can irritate the eyes on contact and cause high blood pressure, headache, irritability, reduced memory, disturbed sleep, and mood and personality changes. Breathing lead compounds can irritate the nose and throat. Exposure to higher levels of lead can damage the brain; kidneys; reproductive system; blood cells, causing anemia; and the nerves, causing weakness. Exposure may also cause muscle and joint pain, decreased reaction time, poor coordination, and poor memory.  

If you think you have been exposed to lead, contact your health care professional. 

For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

This description is based on the information found in the Web links listed with this topic.


Web Links from MedlinePlus (National Library of Medicine)
Lead Poisoning

More Links
Lead (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences)
Lead (Environmental Protection Agency)
Lead (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Lead and Human Health. Enviro-Health Links (National Library of Medicine)
Lead Compounds. Hazardous Substances Data Bank (National Library of Medicine)
Lead home page (Environmental Protection Agency)
Lead in Toy Jewelry (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Lead. Haz-Map (National Library of Medicine)
Lead. Household Products Database (National Library of Medicine)
Lead. ToxFAQs (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)
Map of Releases of Lead in the United States. TOXMAP (National Library of Medicine)
Protect Your Family From Lead in Your Home (Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) (PDF)
ToxGuide for Lead (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) (PDF — 6 KB)
Work - Related Lead Poisoning (Oregon Department of Health Services, Lead Poisoning Prevention)

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Last Updated: October 29, 2014

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