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What is Lead?

Lead is a metal that has been used in a variety of products, including paints, pipes, solder, ceramic glazes, batteries, cosmetics, gasoline, and devices to shield X-rays.

Lead naturally occurs in the rocks and soil of the earth's crust as a heavy, soft, bluish-gray metal. Lead is also produced from fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas.

Because of health concerns, lead and lead compounds were banned from house paint in 1978 and from solder used on water pipes in 1986. Lead was also banned from gasoline in 1995 and from food cans and wine bottles in 1996.

See also: Factories Food and Cooking Homes Brownfield Mines Drinking Water Cardiovascular (Heart) Disease Learning and Developmental Disabilities

Where is Lead found?

  • Soil and earth - in rocks and soil as a naturally occurring mineral, and in soil from burning fossil fuels
  • Water pipes and drinking water – in water flowing through old pipes
  • Lead-based paint in schools and homes - indoor air can contain lead dust from lead paint scraping off surfaces, including during opening and closing of doors and windows.
  • Consumer products – lead-glazed pottery and products made outside the United States, such as medicine

How can I be exposed to Lead?

Lead commonly enter(s) the body through:


Ingestion (swallowing)

  • Drinking water or food contaminated with lead, dishes that contain lead, or lead dust on hands before eating; for children, eating lead paint chips found in houses built before 1978

Inhalation (breathing)

  • Breathing lead particles or dust

Skin contact

  • Touching soil contaminated with lead

What happens when I am exposed to Lead?

Children, especially under the age of six, are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults.

Exposure to small amounts of lead can cause:

  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
  • High blood pressure
  • Anemia
  • Headache
  • Reduced memory
  • Tremors

Long-term exposure to lead can cause:

  • Cancer
  • Multiple organ toxicities that may ultimately be fatal
  • Nerve disorders
  • Damage to brain and kidneys
  • Cataracts
  • Fertility problems
  • In pregnant women, changes in reproductive health and birth defects, including miscarriage, premature birth, and smaller babies
  • In children exposed to lead during pregnancy, learning and developmental disabilities, including decreased mental ability and growth, and learning difficulties
  • In children, decreased IQ, behavioral effects, altered physical growth, and brain damage that can cause convulsions and death

Who is at risk for exposure to Lead?

  • Children six years old or younger
    • Lead-based paint can chip, flake, or create dust; some objects are painted with lead-based paint.
  • Communities with lead pipes
    • Drinking water from lead pipes can be contaminated.
  • Pregnant women
    • Exposure to lead during pregnancy can affect the woman, pregnancy, and developing fetus.

Reduce your risk

If you think your health has been affected by exposure to lead, contact your health care professional. 

Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling chemicals. For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

  • Was your home built before 1978?
  • If your home was built before 1986, do you have lead solder in your water pipes?
  • Do you use well water that may contain lead?
  • Do you use dishes that may contain lead?
  • Do you use cosmetics and health care products made outside the United States that may contain lead?
  • Do you use hobby products, such as materials for sculpturing and staining glass, that may contain lead?
  • If your home was built before 1978 and lead-based paints in it are flaking, chipping, or deteriorating into dust, these paints should be removed and replaced with lead-free paints.
  • Talk to your state or local health department about testing paint and dust from your home for lead.
  • Work with certified professionals to safely remove lead-based paints.
  • Create barriers between living/play areas and lead sources until environmental cleanup is complete.
  • Routinely wet-mop floors and wet-wipe window components to keep levels of leaded dust low.
  • Routinely check your well water for lead.
  • If your home was built before 1986 and you think you have lead solder in your water pipes, routinely check your home’s drinking water supply for lead.
  • If tests indicate that lead is leaching from household plumbing, work with a certified professional to find and eliminate the source. Use only cold water from the tap for drinking, cooking, and making baby formula.
  • Avoid using traditional folk medicines and cosmetics that may contain lead.
  • Avoid eating candy imported from Mexico.
  • Avoid using containers, cookware, or tableware that are not shown to be lead-free to store or cook foods or liquids.
  • Make sure children do not have access to peeling paint or chewable surfaces painted with lead-based paint.
  • Children and pregnant women should not be in housing built before 1978 that is undergoing renovation.
  • Regularly wash children’s hands and toys.
  • Remove recalled toys and toy jewelry immediately from children.

National Library of Medicine Resources and Databases

  • Lead: Health Information Resources
    Links to health information resources in English and Spanish on lead, including data and research; specific aspects; law and policy; blogs, news, podcasts, and videos; topic-related searches from the National Library of Medicine; and selection guidelines.
  • Lead Compounds. Hazardous Substances Data Bank
    Search results on lead compounds from a toxicology database that focuses on the toxicology of potentially hazardous chemicals.

Additional Resources

  • Lead Poisoning and Health
    World Health Organization
    Information on lead poisoning and health, including key facts, sources and routes of exposure, health effects of lead poisoning on children, potential resulting diseases, and links to related resources.
  • Sources of Lead: Water
    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    Answers to questions about how lead gets into tap water, including detection, potential health effects, and actions for reduction and safety.
  • Lead
    National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
    Information on sources of lead exposure, associated hazardous health effects for children and adults, treatments for removing lead from the body, prevention tips, and links to additional resources from an federal institute that investigates the interplay between environmental exposures, human biology, genetics, and common diseases to help prevent disease and improve human health.
  • Lead
    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    Information on childhood lead exposure, including data, statistics, surveillance, educational interventions, and related links.
  • Lead. ToxFAQs
    Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
    Factsheet with answers to the most frequently asked questions about lead exposure and its effect on human health, developed by a federal public health agency that protects communities from harmful health effects related to exposure to natural and man-made hazardous substances.
  • Lead
    Environmental Protection Agency
    Information about lead exposure, including sources, resources for protecting your family, and relevant programs.

Science Classroom (Grades 6-8)

Enhance your education on toxic chemicals in our environment using lesson plans, games and activities, videos, informational websites, and more.

Are There Dangerous Levels of Lead in Local Soil?
Science Buddies
Lessons and hands-on activities about lead in local soil.
How Mother Bear Taught the Children about Lead
Healthy Environments for Children Initiative for the Penobscot Indian Nation
An illustrated Native American folktale in which Mother Bear teaches children about lead.
Lead Poisoning
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Educational resources about sources of lead, lead poisoning  symptoms, and associated research.

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National Library of Medicine
Professor Plumbum takes intergalactic superhero Leadman on a historic tour about properties and uses of lead, convincing him to redesign his suit into something less… leadly.
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