Lead

What Is Lead?

Lead is a toxic metal that was once regularly used in the manufacturing of 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, fertilizers and used in many industrial processes. Since the late 1970s, elimination of lead in gasoline and paints has dramatically reduced lead pollution in the United States. 2 However, much of the lead that was released through the use of leaded gasoline in the past remains in the environment, especially in the soil near major roadways. 1

Where Does Indoor Lead Pollution Come From?

Inhaled lead enters the body when a person breathes in particles of lead suspended in the air.  The most common source of lead air pollution indoors is old paint found in homes built before 1978. 3 If left untouched and in good condition, lead-based paint may not pose a significant hazard to health.  However, if it is chipped or deteriorating, paint can create dust, chips and suspended particles that can be inhaled.  Activities like remodeling, dry scraping, and demolition also disturb and re-suspend paint particles.  

Contaminated soil and dust tracked indoors from outside are also large contributors to indoor lead pollution. 2 Levels of lead 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 contribute to indoor air pollution. 2 People who work with or around lead must take care to 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 our bones, liver, and kidneys and can get into our blood.  The effects of lead poisoning may continue after the source of exposure has been eliminated. 2

The nervous system is the main target of lead's effects on the bodies of both adults and children. Lead can –

  • Harm cognitive functions
  • Cause behavioral problems
  • Decrease IQ 

Developing nervous systems are particularly susceptible to the harmful effects of lead.  As a result, children are most vulnerable to lead pollution. 1  

The acute effects of lead poisoning include –  

  • Seizures
  • Paralysis
  • Anemia
  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Vomiting
  • Decreased appetite
  • 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
  • Anemia 1

When taken up and stored in bone, lead has been shown to disrupt skeletal development and affect calcium absorption.  Lead accumulated in the skeleton may be released during pregnancy and breast feeding and can be passed from a mother to her vulnerable, developing child. 4

The EPA 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 located 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-laden 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. 4

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

People living at a disadvantaged socioeconomic status also 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.  Chipping and deteriorating paint is a major source of lead indoors.

How Can Exposure to Lead in the Home Be Avoided?

If you suspect that there is lead-based paint in your home, take steps to protect your family.

  • First, leave lead paint intact if possible.  If you are concerned about the presence of lead paint, paint over it rather than try 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, be sure to take precautions. http://www.epa.gov/iaq/homes/hip-lead.html   Hire someone who has specialized training 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 and, if possible, leave lead-based paint untouched if it is in good condition 3. 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 the 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 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). 2007. Toxicological Profile for Lead. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.

[2] California Air Resources Board (CARB). 2005. Report to the California Legislature: Indoor Air Pollution in California. Sacramento, CA: California Environmental Protection Agency.

[3] "Lead-Based Paint." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 26 Aug. 2008. Web. http://www.epa.gov/iaq/homes/hip-lead.html.

[4] U.S. EPA. 2006. Air Quality Criteria for Lead (2006) Final Report. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Washington, DC, EPA/600/R-05/144aF-bF.

[5] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2005. Blood Lead Levels – United States, 1999-2002. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 54(20): 513-516