What is Lead?

Lead is a naturally occurring bluish-gray metal. It has no characteristic taste or smell. Metallic lead does not dissolve in water and does not burn. Some natural and manufactured substances contain lead but do not look like lead in its metallic form. Some of these substances can burn - for example, organic lead compounds in some gasolines.

Uses of Lead

Lead has many different uses. Its most important use is in the production of some types of batteries. It is also used in some ammunition, certain metal products (e.g., sheet lead, solder, some brass and bronze products, and pipes) and in ceramic glazes. Some chemicals containing lead, such as tetraethyl lead and tetramethyl lead, were once used as gasoline additives to increase octane rating. However, their use was phased out in the 1980s, and lead was banned for use in gasoline for transportation beginning January 1, 1996. Other chemicals containing lead are used in paint. The amount of lead added to paints and ceramic products, caulking, gasoline, and solder has also been reduced in recent years to minimize lead's harmful effects on people and animals. Lead is used in a large variety of medical equipment (radiation shields for protection against X-rays, electronic ceramic parts of ultrasound machines, intravenous pumps, fetal monitors, and surgical equipment). Lead is also used in scientific equipment (circuit boards for computers and other electronic circuitry) and military equipment (jet turbine engine blades, military tracking systems).

Human activities (such as use of "leaded" gasoline) have spread lead and substances that contain lead to all parts of the environment. For example, lead is in air, drinking water, rivers, lakes, oceans, dust, and soil. Lead is also in plants and animals that people may eat.

Lead in the Environment

Lead occurs naturally in the environment. However, most of the high levels found throughout the environment comes from human activities. Before the use of leaded gasoline was banned, most of the lead released into the U.S. environment came from car exhaust. In 1979, cars released 94.6 million kilograms (kg; 1 kg equals 2.2 pounds) of lead into the air in the United States. Other sources of lead released to the air include burning fuel, such as coal or oil, industrial processes, and burning solid waste. Once lead goes into the atmosphere, it may travel thousands of miles if the lead particles are small or if the lead compounds easily evaporate. Lead is removed from the air by rain and by particles falling to the ground or into surface water.

Most lead in urban soils has two sources: old paint containing lead, and deposits from vehicle exhaust left behind when gasoline contained lead.

Mining wastes that have been used for sandlots, driveways, and roadbeds can also be sources of lead.

Higher levels of lead in soil can be measured near roadways. This accumulation came from car exhaust in the past. Once lead falls onto soil, it usually sticks to soil particles. Small amounts of lead may enter rivers, lakes, and streams when soil particles are moved by rainwater. Lead may remain stuck to soil particles in water for many years. Movement of lead from soil particles into underground water or drinking water is unlikely unless the water is acidic or "soft". Movement of lead from soil will also depend on the type of lead salt or compound and on the physical and chemical characteristics of the soil.

Sources of lead in surface water or sediment include deposits of lead-containing dust from the atmosphere, waste water from industries that handle lead (primarily iron and steel industries and lead producers), urban runoff, and mining piles.

Some of the chemicals that contain lead are broken down by sunlight, air, and water to other forms of lead. Lead compounds in water may combine with different chemicals depending on the acidity and temperature of the water. Lead itself cannot be broken down.

The levels of lead may build up in plants and animals from areas where air, water, or soil are contaminated with lead. If animals eat contaminated plants or animals, most of the lead that they eat will pass through their bodies.

Exposure to Lead

For people who do not live near hazardous waste sites, most exposure to lead may occur in several ways: (1) by eating foods or drinking water that contain lead, (2) by spending time in areas where leaded paints have been used and are deteriorating, (3) by working in jobs where lead is used, (4) by using health-care products or folk remedies that contain lead, and (5) by having hobbies in which lead may be used such as sculpting (lead solder) and staining glass.

Foods such as fruits, vegetables, meats, grains, seafood, soft drinks, and wine may have lead in them. Cigarette smoke also contains small amounts of lead. Lead gets into food from water during cooking and into foods and beverages from dust that contains lead falling onto crops, from plants absorbing lead that is in the soil, and from dust that contains lead falling onto food during processing. Lead may also enter foods if they are put into improperly glazed pottery or ceramic dishes and from leaded-crystal glassware. Lead may also be released from soldered joints in kettles used to boil water for beverages.

In general, very little lead is found in lakes, rivers, or groundwater used to supply the public with drinking water. However, the amount of lead taken into your body through drinking water can be higher in communities with acidic water supplies. Acidic water makes it easier for the lead found in pipes, leaded solder, and brass faucets to enter water. Public water treatment systems are now required to used control measures to make water less acidic. Sources of lead in drinking water include lead that can come out of lead pipes, faucets, and leaded solder used in plumbing. Plumbing that contains lead may be found in public drinking water systems, and in houses, apartment buildings, and public buildings that are more than twenty years old.

Breathing in or swallowing airborne dust and dirt that have lead in them is another way you can be exposed. In 1984, burning leaded gasoline was the single largest source of lead emissions. Other sources of lead in the air include releases to the air from industries involved in iron and steel production, lead-acid battery manufacturing, and non-ferrous (brass and bronze) foundries. Lead released into air may also come from burning of solid lead-containing waste, windblown dust, volcanoes, exhaust from workroom air, burning or weathering of lead-painted surfaces, fumes from leaded gasoline, and cigarette smoke.

Skin contact with dust and dirt containing lead occurs every day. Some cosmetics and hair dyes contain lead compounds. However, not much lead can get into your body through your skin.

People who are exposed at work are usually exposed by breathing in air that contains lead particles. Exposure to lead occurs in many jobs. People who work in 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 industries may be exposed to lead. Construction workers and people who work at municipal waste incinerators, pottery and ceramics industries, radiator repair shops, and other industries that use lead solder may also be exposed.

You may also be exposed to lead in the home if you work with stained glass as a hobby, make lead fishing weights or ammunition, or if you are involved in home renovation that involves the removal of old lead-based paint.


Some of the lead that enters your body comes from breathing in dust or chemicals that contain lead. Once this lead gets into your lungs, it goes quickly to other parts of the body in your blood.

Most of the lead that enters your body comes through swallowing, even though very little of the amount you swallow actually enters your blood and other parts of your body. In addition to the lead that may be present in food and drink, accidental ingestion of lead may occur due to skin contamination while eating, drinking, smoking, or applying cosmetics (including lip balm).

Dust and soil that contain lead may get on your skin, but only a small portion of the lead will pass through your skin and enter your body if it is not washed off. More lead can pass through skin than has been damaged (for example by scrapes, scratches, and wounds). The only kinds of lead compounds that easily penetrate the skin are the additives in leaded gasoline, which is no longer sold to the general public. Therefore, the general public is not likely to encounter lead that can enter through the skin.

Shortly after lead gets into your body, it travels in the blood to the soft tissues, (such as the liver, kidneys, lungs, brain, spleen, muscles, and heart). After several weeks, most of the lead moves into your bones and teeth. Some of the lead can stay in your bones for decades; however, some lead can leave your bones and reenter your blood and organs under certain circumstances, for example, during pregnancy and periods of breast feeding, after a bone is broken, and during advancing age.

Your body does not change lead into any other form. Once it is taken in and distributed to your organs, the lead that is not stored in your bones leaves your body in your urine or your feces.

Health Effects of Lead

The NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards [3] lists the following symptoms related to lead exposure:

  • Weakness, exhaustion, insomnia

  • Facial pallor

  • Anorexia, weight loss, malnutrition

  • Constipation, abdominal pain, colic

  • Anemia

  • Gingival lead line

  • Tremor

  • Paralysis of wrist, ankles

  • Encephalopathy

  • Kidney disease

  • Eye irritation

  • Hypertension

  • Potential occupational carcinogen

  • When checked on 12 December 2015, US EPA's IRIS Database stated that lead is a "probable human carcinogen", "based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in animals". According to IRIS, "Ten rat bioassays and one mouse assay have shown statistically significant increases in renal tumors with dietary and subcutaneous exposure to several soluble lead salts. Animal assays provide reproducible results in several laboratories, in multiple rat strains with some evidence of multiple tumor sites. Short term studies show that lead affects gene expression. Human evidence is inadequate." [4]

    When checked on 7 April 2015, The International Agency for Research on Cancer had determined that lead is possibly carcinogenic to humans, inorganic lead compounds are probably carcinogenic to humans, and that organic lead compounds are not classifiable as to carcinogenicity in humans.


    [1] "Toxicological Profile for Lead July 1999 Update", published by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services

    [2] International Agency for Research on Cancer

    [3] NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards, published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

    [4] Integrated Risk Information System, published by the United States Environmental Protection Agency