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.
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.
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.
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:
In rare cases, ingestion of lead can cause seizures, coma and even death.
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:
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).
Lead is also harmful to other adults. Adults exposed to lead can suffer from:
Lead poisoning is entirely preventable. Learn what you can do to stop children from coming into contact with lead before they are harmed.
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.
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: