Lead is found naturally in the earth, but just because it’s natural chemical elements doesn’t mean it’s harmless. It is a heavy metal with a long history of industrial and personal use—and just as long of a history of harming human health. It has actually been recorded to be harmful as early as 2,000 BC! 
- Lead is found in a large array of consumer products, from art supplies and automobile components to specialty paints, some hair dyes, and even candy. 
- PVC products may contain lead. 
- Gasoline and paint are now lead-free in the U.S. and many other countries. But despite a 1978 ban, lead paint on the walls of older homes and buildings continues to be a primary source of lead exposure for children. In certain areas and homes, lead from paint contaminates soil and house dust too. 
- Drinking water can contain lead that leaches out of pipes. 
- Some soils are contaminated with lead from smelters (facilities that process metals) or past use of the pesticide lead arsenate in orchards. [2, 4]
- Workers exposed to lead on the job can bring it home on clothing and shoes, exposing their family members. 
Children exposed to lead at a young age are more likely to suffer from shorter attention spans and are less able to read and learn than their peers. 5 Many other health effects of lead are well-known:
- behavioral problems
- high blood pressure, anemia
- kidney damage
- memory and learning difficulties
- miscarriage, decreased sperm production
- reduced IQ
Decades of evidence on lead’s health effects were amassed before the metal was banned in paint and gasoline, and lead is still allowed in many consumer products. The following actions would reduce ongoing exposure to these toxic heavy metals:
- Lead should be phased out of products.
- Contaminated sites should be cleaned up promptly and fully.
- Where a large geographic area is contaminated, state government should take measures to ensure facilities such as schools and day care centers are not sited on contaminated soil.
- Solid-waste and medical-waste incinerators should be shut down and replaced with waste and toxicity reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting programs.
- School districts should take remedial action to eliminate lead exposure to children from school drinking water.
We come into contact with lead in many ways, but there are some steps we can take to reduce our exposure.
Watch for lead paint. If you live in a home built before 1978, it is likely to contain lead-based paint. If the paint is chipping, peeling, or otherwise deteriorating, or if you want to remodel, hire a certified abatement worker to remove or contain contaminated paint. Use door mats, remove shoes at the door, and vacuum and clean regularly to reduce lead that accumulates in house dust.
Protect drinking water. Avoid exposure to lead that may be leaching from plumbing by flushing your cold water pipes (run water until it becomes as cold as it will get) before drinking, and only use cold water for drinking or cooking.
Avoid PVC. Choose alternatives to products made of PVC, which often contain lead, especially for items that are likely to come into direct contact with children’s hands and mouths, such as toys, teethers, and lunchboxes. Old toys and furniture made prior to 1978 may also contain lead-based paint. For consumer product safety information and recalls for lead products, visit the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s website.
Watch for lead in dishware. Do not use old, imported, or homemade ceramic dishware, unless you know that the glazes do not contain lead. Avoid leaded crystal, as well as imported food cans, which can contain lead solder.
Make sure medicines are free of lead. Some home remedies, as well as drugs and cosmetics, can contain lead. Look at ingredient lists, talk to your doctor, and avoid folk remedies and other medicines that contain this toxic metal.
Check paints and art supplies. Avoid lead solder and artists’ paints and glazes that contain lead. Information on some products containing these ingredients is available from the Household Products Database. Otherwise, ask the manufacturer.
Remove your shoes when entering your house. Lead is often in the soil, gets stuck on our shoes, and then tracks into out homes. Remove your shoes as you enter the house to reduce exposure, especially those who are closer to the floor (children and pets).
- History of lead poisoning in the world. The Lead Group Incorporated website. http://www.lead.org.au/history_of_lead_poisoning_in_the_world.htm. Accessed February 6, 2017.
- Lead toxicity: Where is lead found? Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry website. https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=7&po=5. Published August 20, 2007. Updated August 25, 2016. Accessed February 6, 2017.
- Lead Stabilisers. PVC website. http://www.pvc.org/en/p/lead-stabilisers. Accessed February 6, 2017.
- Historical use of lead arsenate insecticides, resulting soil contamination and implications for soil remediation. Washington State University website. http://soils.tfrec.wsu.edu/leadhistory.htm. Updated July 15, 2004. Accessed February 6, 2017.
- Learn about lead U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website. https://www.epa.gov/lead/learn-about-lead#effects. Accessed on February 6, 2017.