Lead Poisoning and the Environment

lead poisoning and the environment

Lead occurs naturally in the Earth's crust. It is released in the environment during some activities such as mining, manufacturing, and burning fossil fuels. Lead was once used in paints, gasoline, and some vinyl products, such as mini-blinds. It is still used to make batteries, ammunition, some metal pipes, and devices to shield X-rays.

The main source of childhood lead exposure is deteriorated lead-based paint, lead-contaminated dust, and lead-contaminated soil in and around older homes.

24 million homes have peeling or chipping lead-based paint and high levels of lead-contaminated dust. More than 4 million of these homes have young children living in them.

Health Effects

People may be exposed to lead by breathing or swallowing lead or lead dust. Once it enters the body, lead can become a health hazard. Lead can affect almost every organ and system in the body, especially the nervous system. It can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems. At very high levels, it can cause seizures, coma, and even death. Lead poisoning frequently goes unrecognized because it often occurs with no obvious symptoms.

Children are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults. The first 6 years of life are critical and is the time when the brain grows the fastest. Connections in the brain and nervous system that control thought, learning, hearing, movement, behavior, and emotions are formed during the first 3 years. The normal behavior of children at this age are crawling, exploring, teething, and putting objects in their mouth that puts them into contact with any lead present in their environment.

No safe level of lead exposure has been identified.


The key to preventing lead poisoning in children is to stop them from coming into contact with lead; those children who have been poisoned by lead must also be tracked and treated.