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ToxFAQsTM for Lead

ToxFAQs PDF PDF Version, 368 KB


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.


What is lead?

Lead is a naturally occurring metal found in small amounts in the earth's crust. Lead can be found in all parts of our environment, including air, water and soil. Lead can exist in many different chemical forms.

Lead is used in the production of batteries, ammunition, and metal products (solder and pipes). Because of health concerns, use of lead in paints, ceramic products, caulking, and pipe solder has been dramatically reduced. The use of lead as an additive to automobile gasoline was banned in 1996 in the United States.


What happens to lead when it enters the environment?

  • Lead is an element and, therefore, it does not break down.
  • When lead is released to the air, it may be transported long distances before it deposits onto the ground.
  • Once deposited, lead often adheres to soil particles.
  • Lead in soil can be transported into groundwater, but the amount of lead that moves into groundwater will depend on the chemical form of lead and soil type.

How can I be exposed to lead?

  • Eating food or drinking water that contains lead. Water pipes in some older homes may contain lead solder which can leach into the water.
  • Spending time in areas where lead-based paints have been used and are deteriorating. Deteriorating lead paint can form lead dust which can be ingested.
  • Spending time in areas where the soil is contaminated with lead.
  • Working in a job where lead is used or participating 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 inhalation or ingestion. Lead can affect almost every organ and system in your body. The nervous system is the main target for lead toxicity in adults and children.

Long-term exposure can result in decreased learning, memory, and attention and weakness in fingers, wrists, or ankles. Lead exposure can cause anemia and damage to kidneys. It can also cause increases in blood pressure, particularly in middle-aged and older individuals. Exposure to high lead levels can severely damage the brain and kidneys and can cause death. In pregnant women, exposure to high levels of lead may cause a miscarriage. High-level exposure in men can damage reproductive organs.


How can lead affect children?

Children are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults because their nervous system is still developing. Children can be exposed to lead in their environment and prior to birth from lead in their mother’s body. At lower levels of exposure, lead can decrease mental development, with effects on learning, intelligence and behavior. Physical growth may also be decreased. A child who swallows large amounts of lead may develop anemia, severe stomachache, muscle weakness, and brain damage. Exposure to lead during pregnancy can result in premature births. Some effects of lead may persist into adulthood.


Can lead cause cancer?

There have been several agencies and organizations both in the United States and internationally that have reviewed studies and made an assessment about whether lead can cause cancer.

  • The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has determined that lead and lead compounds are reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified lead as 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.

Can I get a medical test to check for lead?

A blood test is available to measure the amount of lead in your blood. Blood tests are commonly used to screen children for lead poisoning. Your doctor can draw blood samples and send them to appropriate laboratories for analysis.


How can I protect my family from lead exposure?

  • 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 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.

Reference

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2019. Toxicological Profile for Lead (Draft for Public Comment). Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.


Where can I get more information?

If you have questions or concerns, please contact your community or state health or environmental quality department or:

For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology and Human Health Sciences
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop S102-1
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO · 888-232-6348 (TTY)
Email: Contact CDC-INFO

ATSDR can also tell you the location of occupational and environmental health clinics. These clinics specialize in recognizing, evaluating, and treating illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances.

Contact Us:
  • Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
    4770 Buford Hwy NE
    Atlanta, GA 30341
  • 800-CDC-INFO
    (800-232-4636)
    TTY: (888) 232-6348
  • New Hours of Operation
    8am-8pm ET/Monday-Friday
    Closed Holidays
    Contact CDC-INFO
USA.gov: The U.S. Government's Official Web PortalDepartment of Health and Human Services
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 4770 Buford Hwy NE, Atlanta, GA 30341
Contact CDC: 800-232-4636 / TTY: 888-232-6348

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