Lead (Pb) is a heavy metal element that is found naturally and produced by mining ore. Lead has a long history of use in production of various materials, and continues to be used in a wide variety of consumer products. Indirect sources  of lead also include  burning fossil fuels and manufacturing.  

Metal and electronic products and devices are often produced with lead. Lead solder used to be common and is still sometimes used in electronics. Lead-containing pigments used to be very common in plastics. Lead was used as a stabilizer in paint until the late 1970s in the U.S., leading to widespread and ongoing lead exposure of children from lead-tainted dust and paint chips in these homes. Lead remains common as a stabilizer in PVC coatings on electrical wires. Lead was relatively common in children's products and toys until the Consumer Product Safety Commission mandated a limit of 100 ppm total lead in 2011.


Health Effects

  • Scientists have found there is no safe level of lead for children - even the smallest amount affects a child's ability to learn (Lanphear et al. 2005, Gilbert 2006). Children are more vulnerable than adults to lead (ATSDR 2007).

  • Lead impacts brain development, causing learning and developmental problems including decreased IQ scores, shorter attention spans, and delayed learning (Gilbert 2004).

  • When children are exposed to lead, the developmental and nervous system consequences are irreversible (Gilbert 2006). Nationwide, 310,000 children already have lead levels of concern (ATSDR 2007).

  • In addition to neurological damage, excessive amounts of lead can lead to muscle weakness, anemia, and kidney damage (Tarragó 2007).

  • While no conclusive proof that lead is a human carcinogen exists, laboratory testing in rats resulted in the development of kidney tumors in the animals. Additionally, the EPA has listed lead as a probable human carcinogen. (Tarragó 2007).


ATSDR. Toxicological Profile for Lead. Toxic Substances Portal (2007).  

Gilbert, S. G. A small dose of toxicology: the health effects of common chemicals. (CRC Press, 2004).

Gilbert, S. G. & Weiss, B. A rationale for lowering the blood lead action level from 10 to 2 μg/dL. Neurotoxicology 27, 693–701 (2006).

Lanphear, B. P. et al. Low-level environmental lead exposure and children’s intellectual function: An international pooled analysis. Environ. Health Perspect. 113, 894–899 (2005).

Tarragó, O. Lead Toxicity. ATSDR Case Stud. Environ. Med. 1–63 (2007).

Published on September 22, 2016

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