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Lead: Background and Overview
Table of Contents
Background and Overview
Lead in Products
Health Effects
Regulations & Policies
Lead Prevention
Assistance Activities
Where To Go for Help
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Lead in the Environment and Health
Contains information on the chemistry of lead, sources of lead, health effects associated with lead ...

Public Health Statement for Lead
Contains an overview of lead, health effects of lead, ways to reduce lead poisoning, and ways lead c...

ToxFAQs for Lead
Lists how lead cycles through the environment, how humans are exposed to lead and the health effects...

Lead, whose elemental symbol is Pb, is a bluish metal that naturally exists in the Earth's crust. Lead is highly stable and persistent. Mining activities extract lead from the crust where it is combined with other elements to make lead compounds. Lead's durability and resistance to corrosion makes it a desirable element in many products such as paints and solders. Car batteries, electronic products, wire and cable, and ammunition are examples of common products that currently contain lead. Residential lead-based paint and leaded gasoline are products that have been banned nationwide to prevent lead emissions and exposure.

Once released into the environment, lead can exist in air, dust, water, soil, and food. Lead is transferred continuously between air, water, and soil by natural chemical and physical processes such as weathering, runoff, precipitation, dry deposition of dust, and stream/river flow. Once lead goes into the atmosphere, it may travel thousands of miles if the lead particles are small or if the particular lead compound easily evaporates. Lead is removed from the air by rain and by particles falling to the ground or into the surface water. Once lead falls onto soil, it often ends up in sediments. Lead may enter rivers, lakes, and streams when soil particles are moved by rainwater. Lead may remain bound to soil particles in water for many years. Movement of lead from soil particles into groundwater or drinking water is unlikely unless the water is acidic. Lead levels may build up in plants and animals in areas where air, water, and/or soil are contaminated with lead. If animals eat contaminated plants or animals, most of the lead they eat will pass through their bodies.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency began to reduce lead emissions from automobiles soon after the Agency's inception, issuing the first reduction standards in 1973. This standard called for a gradual phaseout of lead to one-tenth of a gram per gallon of gasoline by 1986. In 1975, passenger cars and light trucks were manufactured with a more elaborate emission control system, which included a catalytic converter that required lead-free fuel. Effective January 1, 1996, the Clean Air Act banned the small amount of leaded fuel that was still available in some parts of the country for use in on-road vehicles. Despite the ban of leaded gasoline, contamination from previous lead emissions from automobiles is still present in the environment today.

In 1978, lead-based paints were outlawed for residential use by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Nevertheless, the fact that some houses still contain lead paint is an area of concern. Paint chips from the inside and outside of houses built before 1978 can be eaten by children, decomposed into soil, or turned into dust, where they can be inhaled or eaten. Additionally, the United States has banned use of dangerous amounts of lead-based paints in children's toys, furniture, and crayons. Despite this ban, some of these products may still contain dangerous levels of lead if they are imported.

Although lead solder was outlawed for use in potable water systems under the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1986, old plumbing systems may still contain leaded solder. The lead from the solder can be absorbed by standing water in plumbing systems, thus contaminating drinking water.

Lead poisoning can affect people of any age. Lead is mainly ingested but can also be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Once lead enters the body, it is stored in the bloodstream. The blood then enters the kidneys where it is purified before it is sent to the rest of the body. However, the kidneys do not recognize lead as a harmful material and therefore spread the lead to the rest of the body where it is stored in soft tissue, bones, and teeth. The half-life of lead stored in bones can be more than twenty years, thus allowing lead levels to accumulate over time. Therefore people can either have acute, short-term exposure or chronic, long-term exposure to lead. Because lead has a similar composition to calcium, lead is often released from bones into the body along with the calcium. This is a major concern for pregnant women because the lead can be passed to the fetus.

Lead poisoning is the number one environmental health risk that affects children in industrialized countries. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has found that 6% of all children 1-2 years old and 11% of black (non-Hispanic) children ages 1-5 years old have blood levels in the toxic range. Children are more susceptible to lead poisoning than adults because they have lower body weights, are more likely to play in soil, are more likely to put their hands in their mouths, and have bodies that are more likely to absorb the lead they ingest. Common symptoms of lead poisoning are stomachaches, hyperactivity, trouble sleeping, and diarrhea. Lead poisoning often goes undetected because these symptoms resemble those of the flu. Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and, at very high levels, seizures, coma, and even death. If lead poisoning is suspected, a blood test is the only way to detect this disease.

Once the amount of lead stored in the body (the body burden) reaches a certain level, developmental problems, learning disabilities, reproductive problems, behavioral problems, and kidney and brain damage can occur. Many preventive measures have been recommended to reduce children's exposure to lead. For instance, children should always wash their hands before eating. In cases where lead solder in plumbing is present, water should be run for 15-30 seconds before drinking. Also, lead-based paint that has begun to chip should be stripped immediately by a trained professional. The safest way to prevent lead poisoning is to prevent exposure to lead in existing products and eliminate lead from all new products. Alternatives to lead are available for solder, fishing sinkers, ammunition, wheel weights, electronics, and plastics.


The Topic Hub™ is a product of the Pollution Prevention Resource Exchange (P2Rx)

The Lead Topic Hub™ was developed by:

Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association
Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association
Contact email: abray@newmoa.org

Hub Last Updated: 10/8/2013