Lead Indoors

What’s lead?

Lead is a toxic metal once regularly used in manufacturing common household products and gasoline. There is no safe level of exposure to lead.1 Lead is a naturally occurring element and, unlike many pollutants, it does not go away over time.

In the past, lead was added to gasoline, paints, water pipes, ceramic glazes and fertilizers. It also was used in many industrial processes. Beginning in the late 1970s, the United States steadily eliminated lead from gasoline and paints. This change dramatically reduced lead in air pollution in the United States, cutting it by 98 percent by 2002.2, 3 However, much of the lead that entered the air in the past remains in the environment, especially in the soil near major roadways.1

Where does indoor lead pollution come from?

Lead enters the body when a person inhales particles of lead suspended in the air. The most common source of lead indoors is old paint found in homes built before 1978.4 Left untouched and in good condition, lead-based paint may not pose a significant health hazard. However, if it is chipped or deteriorating, paint can create dust, chips and airborne particles that can be inhaled. Activities like remodeling, scraping and demolition also cause paint particles to become airborne.

Lead-contaminated soil and dust tracked indoors from outside also contribute to indoor lead pollution.2 Lead levels in soil are higher near sources such as lead smelters, mines, old agricultural fields and heavily trafficked roadways.4 Lead dust from workplace exposures also may be brought home and add to indoor air pollution.2 People who work with or around lead should avoid carrying lead particles home on their clothing or equipment.

What can lead do to your health?
Exposure to lead can harm nearly every system in the body. It can even kill. Lead accumulates in bones, liver and kidneys and can get into the blood. The effects of lead poisoning may continue after the source of exposure has been eliminated.2, 5

Lead primarily affects the nervous system of both adults and children. It can:

  • Harm cognitive functions,
  • Cause behavioral problems and
  • Decrease IQ.

Young, developing nervous systems are the most sensitive to the harmful effects of lead. As a result, children are most vulnerable to lead pollution.1, 3

Acute effects of lead poisoning include:

  • Seizures,
  • Paralysis,
  • Anemia (lack of red blood cells),
  • Abdominal pain,
  • Constipation,
  • Vomiting,
  • Decreased appetite and
  • Death.1

Chronic, ongoing exposure to high levels of lead, may also cause:

  • Severe damage to the brain and kidneys,
  • Reproductive system damage,
  • Increased blood pressure and
  • Anemia (lack of red blood cells).1

When taken up and stored in bone, lead can affect calcium absorption and disrupt bone development. Lead built up in the skeleton may be released during pregnancy and breast feeding, passing from mother to her vulnerable, developing child.3

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has determined that lead is a probable cancer-causing agent, or carcinogen, in humans.2

Who is at risk?
Young children living in houses or apartment buildings built before 1978 (especially those in inner cities or built before 1950) are at greatest risk from exposure to lead. 1 Young children are likely to play on the floor where lead-contaminated dust may settle. They also are more likely to put their hands or lead-contaminated objects into their mouths. Children and babies are also most vulnerable to the harmful health effects of lead because their nervous systems are still developing.3

People who work in industries that use lead are at risk. Included are lead smelting and refining industries, brass and bronze foundries, rubber product and plastics industries, soldering, steel welding and cutting operations, battery manufacturing plants and lead compound manufacturing facilities. Construction and demolition workers, painters and people working at municipal waste incinerators, pottery and ceramics industries, radiator repair shops and other industries using lead solder may be exposed.1

In the United States, people with lower socioeconomic status and minority groups are more likely to suffer the health effects of lead exposure.5 Lower income residences tend to be older and in worse condition than higher income housing. Old, chipping and deteriorating paint is a major source of lead indoors.

How can exposure to lead in the home be avoided?
If you suspect lead-based paint in your home, take steps to protect your family.

  • Leave lead paint alone and intact if possible. Paint over it rather than trying to remove it. Or hire a professional to remove it. If the paint is flaking, damp-mop floors to remove contaminated dust and wipe window ledges with a warm, damp rag and phosphate-containing dishwashing detergent.
  • If you plan on renovating, take important precautions. Hire a specialist who is trained to remove lead paint. Keep areas being remodeled separate from living areas. Don’t let children near the remodeling site. Keep your home dust-free. If possible, leave lead-based paint untouched if it is in good condition.4 Pregnant women and children should leave the building until the work is completed.
  • Don’t bring lead into the home. People who work with lead should follow standards set by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, such as wearing proper protective gear. Do not bring dirty clothing or equipment that might have been exposed to lead particles into your home.

For more detailed information on lead at home, school or work, visit http://www.epa.gov/iaq/lead.html or http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/lead/.


  1. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Toxicological Profile for Lead. August 2007. Available from http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts13.pdf. Accessed February 24, 2010.
  2. California Air Resources Board (CARB). Report to the California Legislature: Indoor Air Pollution in California. Sacramento, CA: California Environmental Protection Agency. 2005.
  3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Air Quality Criteria for Lead (2006) Final Report. Washington, DC: EPA/600/R-05/144aF-bF. 2006.
  4. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Lead-Based Paint. Available from http://www.epa.gov/iaq/homes/hip-lead.html. Accessed February 24, 2010.
  5. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Blood Lead Levels – United States, 1999 -2002. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 54(20)2005: 513-6.