This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions (FAQs) about lead. For more information, call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-800-232-4636. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. It is important you understand this information because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present.
Exposure to lead can happen from breathing workplace air or dust, eating contaminated foods, or drinking contaminated water. Children can be exposed from eating lead-based paint chips or playing in contaminated soil. Lead can damage the nervous system, kidneys, and reproductive system. Lead has been found in at least 1,272 of the 1,684 National Priority List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is lead?
Lead is a naturally occurring bluish-gray metal found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. Lead can be found in all parts of our environment. Much of it comes from human activities including burning fossil fuels, mining, and manufacturing.
Lead has many different uses. It is used in the production of batteries, ammunition, metal products (solder and pipes), and devices to shield X-rays. Because of health concerns, lead from paints and ceramic products, caulking, and pipe solder has been dramatically reduced in recent years. The use of lead as an additive to gasoline was banned in 1996 in the United States.
What happens to lead when it enters the environment?
- Lead itself does not break down, but lead compounds are changed by sunlight, air, and water.
- When lead is released to the air, it may travel long distances before settling to the ground.
- Once lead falls onto soil, it usually sticks to soil particles.
- Movement of lead from soil into groundwater will depend on the type of lead compound and the characteristics of the soil.
How might I be exposed to lead?
- Eating food or drinking water that contains lead. Water pipes in some older homes may contain lead solder. Lead can leach out into the water.
- Spending time in areas where lead-based paints have been used and are deteriorating. Deteriorating lead paint can contribute to lead dust.
- Working in a job where lead is used or engaging in certain hobbies in which lead is used, such as making stained glass.
- Using health-care products or folk remedies that contain lead.
How can lead affect my health?
The effects of lead are the same whether it enters the body through breathing or swallowing. Lead can affect almost every organ and system in your body. The main target for lead toxicity is the nervous system, both in adults and children. Long-term exposure of adults can result in decreased performance in some tests that measure functions of the nervous system. It may also cause weakness in fingers, wrists, or ankles. Lead exposure also causes small increases in blood pressure, particularly in middle-aged and older people and can cause anemia. Exposure to high lead levels can severely damage the brain and kidneys in adults or children and ultimately cause death. In pregnant women, high levels of exposure to lead may cause miscarriage. Highlevel exposure in men can damage the organs responsible for sperm production.
How likely is lead to cause cancer?
We have no conclusive proof that lead causes cancer in humans. Kidney tumors have developed in rats and mice that had been given large doses of some kind of lead compounds. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that lead and lead compounds are reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens and the EPA has determined that lead is a probable human carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that inorganic lead is probably carcinogenic to humans and that there is insufficient information to determine whether organic lead compounds will cause cancer in humans.
How does lead affect children?
Small children can be exposed by eating lead-based paint chips, chewing on objects painted with lead-based paint, or swallowing house dust or soil that contains lead.
Children are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults. A child who swallows large amounts of lead may develop blood anemia, severe stomachache, muscle weakness, and brain damage. If a child swallows smaller amounts of lead, much less severe effects on blood and brain function may occur. Even at much lower levels of exposure, lead can affect a child’s mental and physical growth.
Exposure to lead is more dangerous for young and unborn children. Unborn children can be exposed to lead through their mothers. Harmful effects include premature births, smaller babies, decreased mental ability in the infant, learning difficulties, and reduced growth in young children. These effects are more common if the mother or baby was exposed to high levels of lead. Some of these effects may persist beyond childhood.
How can families reduce the risk of exposure to lead?
- Avoid exposure to sources of lead.
- Do not allow children to chew or mouth surfaces that may have been painted with lead-based paint.
- If you have a water lead problem, run or flush water that has been standing overnight before drinking or cooking with it.
- Some types of paints and pigments that are used as make-up or hair coloring contain lead. Keep these kinds of products away from children.
- If your home contains lead-based paint or you live in an area contaminated with lead, wash children’s hands and faces often to remove lead dusts and soil, and regularly clean the house of dust and tracked in soil.
Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to lead?
A blood test is available to measure the amount of lead in your blood and to estimate the amount of your recent exposure to lead. Blood tests are commonly used to screen children for lead poisoning. Lead in teeth or bones can be measured by X-ray techniques, but these methods are not widely available. Exposure to lead also can be evaluated by measuring erythrocyte protoporphyrin (EP) in blood samples. EP is a part of red blood cells known to increase when the amount of lead in the blood is high. However, the EP level is not sensitive enough to identify children with elevated blood lead levels below about 25 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL). These tests usually require special analytical equipment that is not available in a doctor's office. However, your doctor can draw blood samples and send them to appropriate laboratories for analysis.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that states test children at ages 1 and 2 years. Children should be tested at ages 3–6 years if they have never been tested for lead, if they receive services from public assistance programs for the poor such as Medicaid or the Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children, if they live in a building or frequently visit a house built before 1950; if they visit a home (house or apartment) built before 1978 that has been recently remodeled; and/or if they have a brother, sister, or playmate who has had lead poisoning. CDC considers a blood lead level of 10 μg/dL to be a level of concern for children.
EPA limits lead in drinking water to 15 μg per liter.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2007. Toxicological Profile for Lead (Update). Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Where can I get more information?
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop F-32
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 1- 800-232-4636 / TTY: 888-232-6348
ATSDR can tell you where to find occupational and environmental health clinics. Their specialists can recognize, evaluate, and treat illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances. You can also contact your community or state health or environmental quality department if you have any more questions or concerns.