What is Lead?

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 health effects.

Where is Lead Found?
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.

Lead may enter the environment from these past and current uses. Lead can also be emitted into the environment from industrial sources and contaminated sites, such as former lead smelters. While natural levels of lead in soil range between 50 and 400 parts per million, mining, smelting and refining activities have resulted in substantial increases in lead levels in the environment, especially near mining and smelting sites.

When lead is released to the air from industrial sources or spark-ignition engine aircraft, it may travel long distances before settling to the ground, where it usually sticks to soil particles. Lead may move from soil into ground water depending on the type of lead compound and the characteristics of the soil.

Federal and state regulatory standards have helped to reduce the amount of lead in air, drinking water, soil, consumer products, food, and occupational settings.

Learn more about sources of lead exposure:

At home
At schools and child care facilities
In products
In drinking water
In outdoor air
In soil
In dust

Who is at Risk?
Children
Lead is particularly dangerous to children because their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults do and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. Babies and young children can also be more highly exposed to lead because they often put their hands and other objects that can have lead from dust or soil on them into their mouths. Children may also be exposed to lead by eating and drinking food or water containing lead or from dishes or glasses that contain lead, inhaling lead dust from lead-based paint or lead-contaminated soil or from playing with toys with lead-based paint.

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.

What are the Health Effects of Lead?
Lead can affect almost every organ and system in your body. Children six years old and younger are most susceptible to the effects of lead.

Children
Even low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in:

Behavior and learning problems
Lower IQ and Hyperactivity
Slowed growth
Hearing Problems
Anemia
In rare cases, ingestion of lead can cause seizures, coma and even death.

Pregnant Women
Lead can accumulate in our bodies over time, where it is stored in bones along with calcium. During pregnancy, lead is released from the mother’s bones along with calcium and can pass from the mother exposing the fetus or the breastfeeding infant to lead. This can result in serious effects to the developing fetus and infant, including:

Cause the baby to be born too early or too small;
Hurt the baby’s brain, kidney’s, and nervous system;
Increase the likelihood of learning or behavioral problems; and
Put the mother at risk for miscarriage.

https://www.epa.gov/lead/learn-about-lead