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ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH CONCERNS AND TOXIC CHEMICALS WHERE YOU LIVE, WORK, AND PLAY

Lead

What is it?

Lead is a metal that has been used in a variety of products, including paints, pipes, solder, ceramic glazes, batteries, cosmetics, gasoline, and devices to shield X-rays.

Lead naturally occurs in the rocks and soil of the earth's crust as a heavy, soft, bluish-gray metal. Lead is also produced from fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas.

Because of health concerns, lead and lead compounds were banned from house paint in 1978 and from solder used on water pipes in 1986. Lead was also banned from gasoline in 1995 and from food cans and wine bottles in 1996.

See also: Brownfield Factories Mines Homes Food and Cooking Drinking Water Cardiovascular (Heart) Disease Learning and Developmental Disabilities

Where is Lead found?

  • Soil and earth - in rocks and soil as a naturally occurring mineral, and in soil from burning fossil fuels
  • Water pipes and drinking water – in water flowing through old pipes
  • Lead-based paint in schools and homes - indoor air can contain lead dust from lead paint scraping off surfaces, including during opening and closing of doors and windows.
  • Consumer products – lead-glazed pottery and products made outside the United States, such as medicine

How can I be exposed to Lead?

Lead commonly enter(s) the body through:

Eating
Ingestion (swallowing)
  • Drinking water or food contaminated with lead, dishes that contain lead, or lead dust on hands before eating; for children, eating lead paint chips found in houses built before 1978
Inhalation
Inhalation (breathing)
  • Breathing lead particles or dust
Touching
Skin contact
  • Touching soil contaminated with lead

What happens to when I am exposed to Lead?

Children, especially under the age of six, are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults.

Short-term:
Exposure to small amounts of lead can cause:

  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
  • High blood pressure
  • Anemia
  • Headache
  • Reduced memory
  • Tremors

Long-term:
Long-term exposure to lead can cause:

  • Cancer
  • Multiple organ toxicities that may ultimately be fatal
  • Nerve disorders
  • Damage to brain and kidneys
  • Cataracts
  • Fertility problems
  • In pregnant women, changes in reproductive health and birth defects, including miscarriage, premature birth, and smaller babies
  • In children exposed to lead during pregnancy, learning and developmental disabilities, including decreased mental ability and growth, and learning difficulties
  • In children, decreased IQ, behavioral effects, altered physical growth, and brain damage that can cause convulsions and death

Who is at risk for exposure to Lead?

  • Children six years old or younger
    • Lead-based paint can chip, flake, or create dust; some objects are painted with lead-based paint.
  • Communities with lead pipes
    • Drinking water from lead pipes can be contaminated.
  • Pregnant women
    • Exposure to lead during pregnancy can affect the woman, pregnancy, and developing fetus.

Reduce your risk

If you think your health has been affected by exposure to lead, contact your health care professional. 

Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling chemicals. For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

  • Was your home built before 1978?
  • If your home was built before 1986, do you have lead solder in your water pipes?
  • Do you use well water that may contain lead?
  • Do you use dishes that may contain lead?
  • Do you use cosmetics and health care products made outside the United States that may contain lead?
  • Do you use hobby products, such as materials for sculpturing and staining glass, that may contain lead?
  • If your home was built before 1978 and lead-based paints in it are flaking, chipping, or deteriorating into dust, these paints should be removed and replaced with lead-free paints.
  • Talk to your state or local health department about testing paint and dust from your home for lead.
  • Work with certified professionals to safely remove lead-based paints.
  • Create barriers between living/play areas and lead sources until environmental cleanup is complete.
  • Routinely wet-mop floors and wet-wipe window components to keep levels of leaded dust low.
  • Routinely check your well water for lead.
  • If your home was built before 1986 and you think you have lead solder in your water pipes, routinely check your home’s drinking water supply for lead.
  • If tests indicate that lead is leaching from household plumbing, work with a certified professional to find and eliminate the source. Use only cold water from the tap for drinking, cooking, and making baby formula.
  • Avoid using traditional folk medicines and cosmetics that may contain lead.
  • Avoid eating candy imported from Mexico.
  • Avoid using containers, cookware, or tableware that are not shown to be lead-free to store or cook foods or liquids.
  • Make sure children do not have access to peeling paint or chewable surfaces painted with lead-based paint.
  • Children and pregnant women should not be in housing built before 1978 that is undergoing renovation.
  • Regularly wash children’s hands and toys.
  • Remove recalled toys and toy jewelry immediately from children.
National Library of Medicine Resources and Databases
Additional Resources
  • Lead (Environmental Protection Agency)
  • Lead. ToxFAQs (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)
  • Lead (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
  • Lead (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences)
  • Lead: Water (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
  • Lead Poisoning and Health (World Health Organization)
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