Lead is a soft, bluish-white metal that exists naturally in the environment. When lead combines with other chemical elements, it creates compounds, or chemical mixtures. When people come in contact with lead in the environment, it is often with compounds.
In the past, lead was used often in products such as house paint, pesticides (chemicals that kill pests), and gasoline. In the 1970s, science clearly showed that that lead is highly toxic to people — especially children. The government passed laws that limit the use of lead, but it still lingers in the environment.
Where is lead found?
Most homes built before 1960s, as well as some built in the 1970s, have lead paint in them. Peeling paint chips and dust in these homes may contain lead. Additionally, some older homes may have plumbing pipes with lead in them. If these pipes are still in use, lead can get into the water.
Lead can also be found in:
- Ceramic glazes (glazes for pottery)
- Leaded crystal glassware
- Fishing sinkers (used to help fishing hooks go underwater)
- Some toys and jewelry
Lead can get into your body if you breathe in dust from lead paint, or if you drink water with lead in it from old plumbing pipes. Children and babies may also come in contact with lead by:
- Eating paint chips or soil that contains lead
- Sucking on their fingers after playing in the dirt or dust
- Playing with toys that have lead in them
How can lead affect my health?
Lead harms many systems in the body — especially the central nervous system (the system that includes the brain and spinal chord). It’s most dangerous for children because their nervous systems are still developing. Repeated exposure to low levels of lead can affect children’s growth, and cause learning or behavior problems.
If a child swallows a lot of lead, it can seriously damage the brain, and may even cause death. Lead poisoning can also cause:
- Anemia (when your blood doesn’t carry enough oxygen to the rest of your body)
- Damage to the kidneys
- Colic (crying in a baby that lasts longer than 3 hours a day and isn’t caused by a medical problem)
- Muscle weakness
Lead may also hurt an unborn baby if a woman is exposed while she’s pregnant.
If you’re worried your health has been affected by lead, talk with your doctor at your next checkup. If you think someone has been poisoned by lead, call the Poison Control Center at (800) 222-1222 right away.
Did you know ?
How old is your home?
If it was built before 1978, it may contain some lead-based paint.
Explore the links below to learn more about lead, including what you can do to protect yourself — and what experts are doing to keep you safe.
Lead (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) - Learn about lead, what it is, where it is found, the potential health effects, and what to do to limit your exposure.
Enviro-Health Links - Lead and Human Health (National Library of Medicine) - Resources on basic information, regulations, and health impacts of lead.
How Mother Bear Taught the Children about Lead (PDF, 3,501.8 KB)(National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) - PDF story book on the effects of lead.
Lead (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) - Information on lead exposure, risks to children, and prevention.
Lead Elemental/Emergency Treatment (National Library of Medicine) - Complete review of lead: health effects, emergency medical treatment, environmental fate and exposure, chemical properties, and manufacturing.
Lead Poisoning: Is Lead Hiding Here? (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) - Information on what lead is, sources of exposure, and resulting symptoms.
Lead/Workplace Safety and Health Topics (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) - Information about lead exposure for employers and workers, and how to keep yourself and your family safe.
ToxFAQs for Lead (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) - FAQ fact sheet with answers to health questions about lead.
Enviromysteries - Maggie's Story (Thinkport) - Interactive story on the effects lead exposure can have; prompts readers for a solution to the problem represented in the story.
Silent but Leadly: Toxicity of Lead (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.
Are There Dangerous Levels of Lead in Local Soil (Science Buddies) - Experiment to test lead levels in local soil.
Periodic Table of the Elements (Los Alamos National Laboratory, Chemistry Division) - Interactive periodic table with links to all the elements that include their history, where they come from, and their uses.
Arsenic and Lead Scavenger Hunt (PDF, 357.34 KB)(National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) - PDF lesson plan outlining activities about negative environmental effects of arsenic and lead.