Lead

What is Lead?

Lead is a naturally occurring element found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. While it has some beneficial uses, it can be toxic to humans and animals causing of health effects.


Where is Lead Found?

Lead can be found in all parts of our environment – the air, the soil, the water, and even inside our homes. Much of our exposure comes from human activities including the use of fossil fuels including past use of leaded gasoline, some types of industrial facilities, and past use of lead-based paint in homes. Lead and lead compounds have been used in a wide variety of products found in and around our homes, including paint, ceramics, pipes and plumbing materials, solders, gasoline, batteries, ammunition, and cosmetics.

Who is at Risk?

Children - Lead is particularly dangerous to children because their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults do and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. Babies and young children can also be more highly exposed to lead because they often put their hands and other objects that can have lead from dust or soil on them into their mouths. Children may also be exposed to lead by eating and drinking food or water containing lead or from dishes or glasses that contain lead, inhaling lead dust from lead-based paint or lead-contaminated soil or from playing with toys with lead paint.

Adults, including pregnant women - Adults may be exposed to lead by eating and drinking food or water containing lead or from dishes or glasses that contain lead. They may also breath lead dust by spending time in areas where lead-based paint is deteriorating, and during renovation or repair work that disturbs painted surfaces in older homes and buildings. Working in a job or engaging in hobbies where lead is used, such as making stained glass, can increase exposure as can certain folk remedies containing lead. A pregnant woman’s exposure to lead from these sources is of particular concern because it can result in exposure to her developing baby.

What are the Health Effects of Lead?

Lead can affect almost every organ and system in your body. Children six years old and younger are most susceptible to the effects of lead.

Children

In children, the main target for lead toxicity is the nervous system. Even very low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in:

  • Permanent damage to the brain and nervous system, leading to behavior and learning problems, lower IQ, and hearing problems
  • Slowed growth
  • Anemia

In rare cases, ingestion of lead can cause seizures, coma and even death.

Pregnant Women

Lead can accumulate in our bodies over time, where it is stored in bones along with calcium. During pregnancy, lead is released from bones as maternal calcium is used to help form the bones of the fetus. This is particularly true if a woman does not have enough dietary calcium. Lead can also be circulated from the mother’s blood stream through the placenta to the fetus. Lead in a pregnant woman’s body can result in serious effects on the pregnancy and her developing fetus, including:

  • Miscarriage
  • Reduced growth of the fetus and premature birth

Find out more about lead's effects on pregnancy:

Lead can also be transmitted through breast milk. Read more on lead exposure in pregnancy and lactating women (PDF)  (302 pp, 4.2MB).

Adults

Lead is also harmful to other adults. Adults exposed to lead can suffer from:

  • Nervous system effects
  • Cardiovascular effects, in increased blood pressure and incidence of hypertension
  • Decreased kidney function
  • Reproductive problems (in both men and women)

Read more on the health effects of lead at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).





Protect your children where they learn and play

Lead poisoning is entirely preventable. Learn what you can do to stop children from coming into contact with lead before they are harmed.

Test your child

Find out if your child has elevated levels of lead in his or her blood. Because lead poisoning often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized. You can test your child for lead poisoning by asking your pediatrician to do a simple blood test. Children with elevated blood lead levels can have serious health effects. If you know your child has lead poisoning, talk to your pediatrician and local health agency about what you can do.

Check the condition of schools and childcare facilities

Although your home may be free of lead-based paint hazards, your child could still be exposed elsewhere, particularly if they spend time in a building built before 1978. Ask your child's school board or facilities manager if they regularly inspect for lead hazards. Here is a list of places to look:

  • Interior painted areas— Examine walls and interior surfaces to see if the paint is cracking, chipping, or peeling, and check areas on doors or windows where painted surfaces may rub together.
  • Exterior painted areas— Check exterior paint as well; it can flake off and contaminate nearby soil where children may play.
  • Surrounding areas— Be sure there are no large structures nearby with peeling or flaking paint that could contaminate the soil around play areas.
  • Cleaning practices— Make sure the staff washes any pacifiers, toys, or bottles that fall on the floor. Also, make sure the staff has the children wash their hands thoroughly after playing outside and before eating or sleeping.
  • Play areas— Look to see if areas where children play are dust-free and clean. Outside, check for bare soil and test for lead.
  • Playground equipment— Older equipment can contain lead-based paint.
  • Painted toys and furniture— Make sure the paint is not cracking, chipping, or peeling. Inquire about whether a childcare center's toys comply with the requirements of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
  • Also, ask about testing all of the drinking water outlets in the facility and on the playground, especially those that provide water for drinking, cooking, and preparing juice and infant formula.  Read more about drinking water in schools and child care facilities.
The U.S. EPA has published a consumer guidance document on lead safety. Click on the cover image below to read it online now.

More Information

Check out these links for additional resources on Lead:

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