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. 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. However, lead remains in our environments, especially near major roadways and in older homes.

Where Does Indoor Lead Pollution Come From?

The most common source of lead indoors is old paint found in homes built before 1978. If left untouched and in good condition, lead-based paint may not pose a significant hazard to health. Often, the lead-based paint is hidden underneath several layers of non-lead paint. However, if the paint is chipped or deteriorating, and the lead-based paint is damaged, it 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. Levels of lead in soil are higher near sources such as lead smelters, mines, old agricultural fields and heavily trafficked roadways and runways. The soil around older homes may also have high levels of lead due to the use of exterior lead paint. Lead dust from workplace exposures also may be brought home and contribute to indoor air pollution. People who work with or around lead must take care to avoid carrying lead particles home on their clothing or equipment.

Lead can sometimes be found in drinking water, antique toys, vintage items like dishware and ceramics and certain foods or cosmetics imported from other countries.

How Lead Impacts 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.

The nervous system is the main target of lead's effects on the bodies of both adults and children. Children are most vulnerable to lead pollution because their nervous systems are developing and can be harmed for life. Lead exposure can harm cognitive functions, decrease IQ and harm cognitive functions.

The acute effects of lead poisoning include:

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

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

When consumed and stored in bone, lead can 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. 

The EPA has determined that lead is a probable cancer-causing agent, or carcinogen, in humans. 

Who Is at Risk?

Young children living in houses or apartment buildings built before 1978 (especially those located in inner cities or in homes built before 1950) are at greatest risk from exposure to lead. 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.

People living at a disadvantaged socioeconomic status also are more likely to suffer the health effects of lead exposure. Lower income housing tends to be older and in worse condition than higher income housing. Chipping and deteriorating paint is a major source of lead indoors.

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. 

How Can You Protect Your Health?

If you suspect that there is lead-based paint in your home, workplace or school take steps to protect your health.

  • 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 your older homebe sure to take precautions. Hire a lead-removal specialist and take steps to minimize dust. Pregnant women and children should leave the building until the work is completed.
  • Minimize dust. Damp dust and vacuum weekly. Remove shoes when entering the home to reduce dust and dirt from being tracked in from the outdoors.
  • 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.
  • If you suspect your child may be exposed to lead, the best way to find out is by a blood lead test. Talk with your child's doctor to learn more

Page last updated: November 2, 2023

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