Lead is a naturally occurring bluish-gray metal found in small amounts in the earth's crust. It has no characteristic taste or smell. Metallic lead does not dissolve in water and does not burn. Lead can combine with other chemicals to form what are usually known as lead compounds or lead salts. Some lead salts dissolve in water better than others. Some natural and manufactured substances contain lead but do not look like lead in its metallic form. Some of these substances can burn - for example, organic lead compounds in some gasolines.
Lead has many different uses. Its most important use is in the production of some types of
batteries. It is also used in the production of ammunition, in some kinds of metal products (such as sheet lead, solder, some brass and bronze products, and pipes) and in ceramic glazes. Some chemicals containing lead, such as tetraethyl lead and tetramethyl lead, were once used as gasoline additives to increase octane rating. However, their use was phased out in the 1980s, and lead was banned for use in gasoline for transportation beginning January 1, 1996. Other chemicals containing lead are used in paint. The amount of lead added to paints and ceramic products, caulking, gasoline, and solder has also been reduced in recent years to minimize lead's harmful effects on people and animals. Lead used in ammunition, which is the largest non-battery end-use, has remained fairly constant in recent years. Lead is used in a large variety of medical equipment (radiation shields for protection against X-rays, electronic ceramic parts of ultrasound machines, intravenous pumps, fetal monitors, and surgical equipment). Lead is also used in scientific equipment (circuit boards for computers and other electronic circuitry) and military equipment (jet turbine engine blades, military tracking systems).
Most lead used by industry comes from mined ores ("primary") or from recycled scrap metal or batteries ("secondary"). Human activities (such as use of "leaded" gasoline) have spread lead and substances that contain lead to all parts of the environment. For example, lead is in air, drinking water, rivers, lakes, oceans, dust, and soil. Lead is also in plants and animals that people may eat.
Fate & Transport
Lead occurs naturally in the environment. However, most of the high levels found throughout the environment comes from human activities. Before the use of leaded gasoline was banned, most of the lead released into the U.S. environment came from car exhaust. In 1979, cars released 94.6 million kilograms (kg; 1 kg equals 2.2 pounds) of lead into the air in the United States. In 1989, when the use of lead was limited but not banned, cars released only 2.2 million kg to the air. Since EPA banned the use of leaded gasoline for highway transportation in 1996, the amount of lead released into the air has decreased further. Other sources of lead released to the air include burning fuel, such as coal or oil, industrial processes, and burning solid waste. Once lead goes into the atmosphere, it may travel thousands of miles if the lead particles are small or if the lead compounds easily evaporate. Lead is removed from the air by rain and by particles falling to the ground or into surface water.
The release of lead to air is now less than the release of lead to land. Most of the lead in inner city soils comes from old houses painted with paint containing lead and previous automotive exhaust emitted when gasoline contained lead. Landfills may contain waste from lead ore mining, ammunition manufacturing, or other industrial activities such as battery production.
Sources of lead in dust and soil include lead that falls to the ground from the air, and weathering and chipping of lead-based paint from buildings and other structures. Lead in dust may also come from windblown soil. Disposal of lead in municipal and hazardous waste dump sites may also add lead to soil. Mining wastes that have been used for sandlots, driveways, and roadbeds can also be sources of lead.
Higher levels of lead in soil can be measured near roadways. This accumulation came from car exhaust in the past. Once lead falls onto soil, it usually sticks to soil particles. Small amounts of lead may enter rivers, lakes, and streams when soil particles are moved by rainwater. Lead may remain stuck to soil particles in water for many years. Movement of lead from soil particles into underground water or drinking water is unlikely unless the water is acidic or "soft". Movement of lead from soil will also depend on the type of lead salt or compound and on the physical and chemical characteristics of the soil.
Sources of lead in surface water or sediment include deposits of lead-containing dust from the atmosphere, waste water from industries that handle lead (primarily iron and steel industries and lead producers), urban runoff, and mining piles.
Some of the chemicals that contain lead are broken down by sunlight, air, and water to other forms of lead. Lead compounds in water may combine with different chemicals depending on the acidity and temperature of the water. Lead itself cannot be broken down.
The levels of lead may build up in plants and animals from areas where air, water, or soil are contaminated with lead. If animals eat contaminated plants or animals, most of the lead that they eat will pass through their bodies.
People living near hazardous waste sites may be exposed to lead and chemicals that contain lead by breathing air, drinking water, eating foods, or swallowing or touching dust or dirt that contains lead. For people who do not live near hazardous waste sites, most exposure to lead may occur in several ways: (1) by eating foods or drinking water that contain lead, (2) by spending time in areas where leaded paints have been used and are deteriorating, (3) by working in jobs where lead is used, (4) by using health-care products or folk remedies that contain lead, and (5) by having hobbies in which lead may be used such as sculpting (lead solder) and staining glass.
Foods such as fruits, vegetables, meats, grains, seafood, soft drinks, and wine may have lead in them. Cigarette smoke also contains small amounts of lead. Lead gets into food from water during cooking and into foods and beverages from dust that contains lead falling onto crops, from plants absorbing lead that is in the soil, and from dust that contains lead falling onto food during processing. Lead may also enter foods if they are put into improperly glazed pottery or ceramic dishes and from leaded-crystal glassware. Illegal whiskey made using stills that contain lead-soldered parts (such as truck radiators) may also contain lead. The amount of lead found in canned foods decreased 87% from 1980 to 1988, which indicates that the chance of exposure to lead in canned food from lead-soldered containers has been greatly reduced. Lead may also be released from soldered joints in kettles used to boil water for beverages.
In general, very little lead is found in lakes, rivers, or groundwater used to supply the public with drinking water. More than 99 percent of all publicly supplied drinking water contains less than 0.005 part of lead per million parts of water (ppm). However, the amount of lead taken into your body through drinking water can be higher in communities with acidic water supplies. Acidic water makes it easier for the lead found in pipes, leaded solder, and brass faucets to enter water. Public water treatment systems are now required to used control measures to make water less acidic. Sources of lead in drinking water include lead that can come out of lead pipes, faucets, and leaded solder used in plumbing. Plumbing that contains lead may be found in public drinking water systems, and in houses, apartment buildings, and public buildings that are more than twenty years old.
Breathing in or swallowing airborne dust and dirt that have lead in them is another way you can be exposed. In 1984, burning leaded gasoline was the single largest source of lead emissions. Very little lead in the air comes from gasoline now because EPA has banned its use in gasoline. Other sources of lead in the air include releases to the air from industries involved in iron and steel production, lead-acid battery manufacturing, and non-ferrous (brass and bronze) foundries. Lead released into air may also come from burning of solid lead-containing waste, windblown dust, volcanoes, exhaust from workroom air, burning or weathering of lead-painted surfaces, fumes from leaded gasoline, and cigarette smoke.
Skin contact with dust and dirt containing lead occurs every day. Some cosmetics and hair dyes contain lead compounds. However, not much lead can get into your body through your skin. Leaded gasoline contains a lead compound that may be quickly absorbed.
In the home, you or your children may be exposed to lead if you take some types of home remedy medicines that contain lead comounds. Lead compounds are in some non-Western cosmetics, such as surma and kohl. Some types of hair colorants and dyes contain lead acetate. Read the labels on hair coloring products, use them with caution, and keep them away from children.
People who are exposed at work are usually exposed by breathing in air that contains lead particles. Exposure to lead occurs in many jobs. People who work in lead smelting and refining industries, brass/bronze foundries, rubber products and plastics industries, soldering, steel welding and cutting operations, battery manufacturing plants, and lead compound manufacturing industries may be exposed to lead. Construction workers and people who work at municipal waste incinerators, pottery and ceramics industries, radiator repair shops, and other industries that use lead solder may also be exposed. Between 0.5 and 1.5 million workers are exposed to lead in the workplace. In California alone over 200,000 workers are exposed to lead. Families of workers may be exposed to higher levels of lead when workers bring home lead dust on their work clothes.
You may also be exposed to lead in the home if you work with stained glass as a hobby, make lead fishing weights or ammunition, or if you are involved in home renovation that involves the removal of old lead-based paint.
Some of the lead that enters your body comes from breathing in dust or chemicals that contain lead. Once this lead gets into your lungs, it goes quickly to other parts of the body in your blood.
You may swallow lead by eating food and drinking liquids that contain it, and also by swallowing large particles (diameter greater than 5 micrometers; 1 micrometer is one millionth of a meter). Most of the lead that enters your body comes through swallowing, even though very little of the amount you swallow actually enters your blood and other parts of your body. In addition to the lead that may be present in food and drink, accidental ingestion of lead may occur due to skin contamination while eating, drinking, smoking, or applying cosmetics (including lip balm). The amount that gets into your body from your stomach partially depends on when you ate your last meal. It also depends on how old you are and how well the lead particles you ate dissolved in your stomach juices. Experiments using adult volunteers showed that, for adults who had just eaten, the amount of lead that got into the body from the stomach was only about six percent of the total amount taken in. In adults who had not eaten for a day, about sixty to eighty percent of the lead from the stomach got into their blood. In general, if adults and children swallow the same amount of lead, a bigger proportion of the amount swallowed will enter the blood in children than in adults.
Dust and soil that contain lead may get on your skin, but only a small portion of the lead will pass through your skin and enter your body if it is not washed off. More lead can pass through skin than has been damaged (for example by scrapes, scratches, and wounds). The only kinds of lead compounds that easily penetrate the skin are the additives in leaded gasoline, which is no longer sold to the general public. Therefore, the general public is not likely to encounter lead that can enter through the skin.
Shortly after lead gets into your body, it travels in the blood to the soft tissues, (such as the liver, kidneys, lungs, brain, spleen, muscles, and heart). After several weeks, most of the lead moves into your bones and teeth. In adults, about 94 percent of the total amount of lead in the body is contained in the bones and teeth. About 73 percent of the lead in children's bodies is stored in their bones. Some of the lead can stay in your bones for decades; however, some lead can leave your bones and reenter your blood and organs under certain circumstances, for example, during pregnancy and periods of breast feeding, after a bone is broken, and during advancing age.
Your body does not change lead into any other form. Once it is taken in and distributed to your organs, the lead that is not stored in your bones leaves your body in your urine or your feces. About 99 percent of the amount of lead taken into the body of an adult will leave in the waste within a couple of weeks, but only about 32 percent of the lead taken into the body of a child will leave in the waste. Under conditions of continued exposure, not all the lead that enters the body will be eliminated, and this may result in accumulation of lead in body tissues, notably bone.
The effects of lead are the same whether it enters the body through breathing or swallowing. The main target for lead toxicity is the nervous system, both in adults and in children. Long-term exposure of adults to lead at work has resulted in decreased performance in some tests that measure functions of the nervous system. Lead exposure may also cause weakness in fingers, wrists, or ankles. Some studies in humans have suggested that lead exposure may increase blood pressure, but the evidence is inconclusive. Lead exposure may also cause anemia, a low number of blood cells. The connection between the occurrence of some of these effects (e.g., increased blood pressure, altered function of the nervous system) and low levels of exposure to lead is not certain. At high levels of exposure, lead can severely damage the brain and kidneys in adults or children. In pregnant women, high levels of exposure to lead may cause miscarriage. High-level exposure in men can damage the organs responsible for sperm production.
We have no proof that lead causes cancer in humans. Kidney tumors have developed in rats and mice given large doses of lead. The animal studies have been criticized because of the very high doses used. The results of high-dose studies should not be used to predict whether lead may cause cancer in humans. The Department of Health and Human Services has determined that lead acetate and lead phosphate may reasonably be anticipated to be capable of causing cancer, based on sufficient evidence from animal studies, but there is inadequate evidence from human studies.
Information excerpted from
Toxicological Profile for Lead April 1993 Update and
Toxicological Profile for Lead July 1999 Update
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
United States Public Health Service