Fact Sheet – Lead

Estimated Population At Risk At Identified Sites: 10 Million People*

Estimated Global Impact: 18 to 22 Million People*


What Is Lead?

Lead is a bluish-grey heavy metal that is naturally occurring in soil and rock. When lead is found naturally, it is often in the form of a lead compound mixed with other elements. Lead is relatively soft compared to other metals and can be molded and shaped easily. Lead is toxic to humans and particularly dangerous for children.


What Is Lead Used For?

Lead is mined for use in products such as pigment in paints, dyes, and ceramic glazes; caulk; pesticides; ammunition; pipes; weights; cable covers; and car batteries. Lead is often combined with other metals to form alloys, and, until recently, was commonly added to gasoline to increase octane ratings. Today, 75% of the six million tons of lead that are used annually goes into the production of lead-acid batteries, often referred to as “car batteries.”


How Is Lead Released Into The Environment?

Lead is commonly released through mining, primary and secondary metal smelting, steal and iron production, car battery recycling, and the production of pigments. These industrial processes often release lead into the air, where it is brought back down by precipitation or as particulate matter settling on land or surface water. Lead can also be released by burning coal, oil, or lead-containing waste.


How Does Lead Reach Humans?

Human exposure pathways for lead include ingestion, inhalation, and dermal contact. Once lead reaches the top layer of soil, it can be blown around as dust or be spread throughout a community by people walking in the impacted area. The lead in soils can reach surface water bodies as part of storm-water runoff, or can migrate to ground water supplies used for drinking and crop irrigation. Lead can also build up in plants and animals when the surrounding environment is contaminated.


What Health Risks Can Lead Cause?

The health effects of lead poisoning are both acute and chronic, and are particularly severe in children. These adverse impacts can include neurological damage, reduced IQ, anemia, muscle and joint pain, loss of memory and concentration, nerve disorders, infertility, increased blood pressure, and chronic headaches. Even small amounts of lead in the bodies of children can be associated with long-term neurological and cognitive defects. When women who are pregnant become exposed to lead, it can result in damage to the fetus and eventual birth defects. At high concentrations, lead poisoning can cause seizures and death.


*Population estimates are preliminary and based on an ongoing global assessment of polluted sites.

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