Lead

Old farmhouse on farmland
woman drinking from glass of water
Lead was used to solder water pipes until 1986 and still can be found in pipes in some older homes.

What is lead?

Lead is a type of metal. Although it forms in ore in small amounts deep underground, lead is abundant and easy to mine.

Lead used to be a common ingredient in many consumer products in the United States, from gasoline and paint to cosmetics and pipes. But it’s highly toxic, so it’s now regulated to minimize or eliminate the amount of lead people are exposed to. Despite regulation, lead is still problematic in certain communities and workplaces.

There are two ways people are typically exposed: by breathing lead in or consuming it. A baby crawling around on the floor in an old home can inhale lead paint via dust that collects on the ground, for example, or someone who works in construction can get it on their hands then consume it by touching and eating food.

Today, the most common sources of lead exposure in the United States are:

  • Lead-based paint in older homes
  • Contaminated soil
  • Household dust
  • Drinking water from leaded pipes
  • Lead crystal
  • Lead-glazed pottery
  • Airplane fuel
  • Toys
  • Cheap jewelry

What health problems are related to lead?

As a general rule, the more lead there is in a person’s body, the higher the likelihood of a health problem. Lead is linked to different health problems in both children and adults:

In children
  • Nervous system and kidney damage
  • Learning disabilities, attention-deficit disorder and decreased intelligence
  • Speech, language and behavior problems
  • Poor muscle coordination
  • Decreased muscle and bone growth
  • Hearing damage

In adults

  • Harm to a developing fetus
  • Fertility problems (in men and women)
  • High blood pressure
  • Digestive problems
  • Nerve disorders
  • Memory and concentration problems
  • Muscle and joint pain

No amount of lead in the human body is considered safe. Children under the age of 6 are most at risk because they tend to put things in their mouth. Pregnant women need to be particularly careful because even a small amount of lead can affect the health of her developing baby.

Most adults with elevated blood lead levels are exposed to lead at work. People with jobs related to mining, ironwork or welding, construction, renovation and remodeling, smelters, firing ranges, the manufacture and disposal of car batteries, automobile radiator repair, metal shop work, and the manufacture of pottery or stained glass are at risk of lead exposure.

How can I reduce my exposure to lead?

  • If your home was built before 1978, contact your local health department to find out about lead that may be in paint, dust or drinking water and what resources are available to prevent exposure. Professional cleaning, painting over old paint and removal of other household hazards such as old pipes, can prevent lead exposure. Only trained professionals and contractors certified by the Environmental Protection Agency should remove lead from your home.
  • Avoid storing food in imported pottery and dishware because it may contain lead.
  • Monitor recalled toys and jewelry by visiting the Consumer Product Safety Commission website and remove recalled items from your home.
  • If a household member works in a lead-related job, ask them to change work clothes and shoes before entering your home and wash clothes separately.

What is the treatment for lead exposure?

Medications can remove some lead from the body. But prevention is still key since lead exposure at low levels can lead to serious health problems and treatment after the fact can’t undo the damage caused by lead.  

Medications for children, for example, are typically only given when lead exposure is very high. Research shows a drug like succimer can lower the level of lead in blood by about 25 percent – but that won’t improve IQ or other test scores.

This information is based on an article about lead by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.