Lead has been found in at least 922 of 1,300 National Priorities List sites (hazardous waste sites) identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A release from an industrial plant, or from a container, does not always lead to exposure. You can be exposed to a chemical only when you come into contact with it. Exposures occur through breathing, eating, or drinking substances containing the chemical, or from skin contact with it. If you are exposed to lead, the appearance of symptoms and their seriousness is dependent upon how much, how long and by what way you were exposed. Your sex, age, lifestyle and state of health also contribute.

What is lead?

Lead is a naturally occurring bluish-gray metal found in small amounts in the earth's crust. It has no special taste or smell. Lead can be found in all parts of our environment. Most of it came from human activities like mining, manufacturing, and the burning of fossil fuels. Because of health concerns, lead from gasoline, paints and ceramic products, caulking, and pipe solder has been dramatically reduced in recent years.

What happens to lead when it enters the environment?

Lead itself does not break down, but lead compounds are changed by sunlight, air, and water. When released to the air from industry or burning of fossil fuels or water, it stays in air about 10 days. Most of the lead in soil comes from particles falling out of the air. City soils also contain lead from landfills and leaded paint. Lead sticks to soil particles. It does not move from soil to underground water or drinking water unless the water is acidic or "soft." It stays a long time in both soil and water.

How might I be exposed to lead?

Breathing workplace air (lead smelting, refining, and manufacturing industries), eating lead-based paint chips, drinking water that comes from lead pipes or lead soldered fittings, ingesting soil contaminated with lead, breathing tobacco smoke, eating contaminated food grown on soil containing lead, or food covered with lead-containing dust, breathing fumes or ingesting lead from hobbies that use lead (leaded-glass, ceramics).

How can lead affect my health?

Lead can affect almost every organ and system in your body. The most sensitive is the central nervous system, particularly in children. Lead also damages kidneys and the immune system.

Exposure to lead is more dangerous for young and unborn children. Unborn children can be exposed to lead through their mothers. Harmful effects include premature births, smaller babies, decreased mental ability in the infant, learning difficulties, and reduced growth in young children. These effects are more common after exposure to high levels of lead.

In adults, lead may decrease reaction time, cause weakness in fingers, wrists, or ankles, and possibly affect the memory. Lead may cause anemia, a disorder of the blood. It can cause abortion and damage the male reproductive system. The connection between these effects and exposure to low levels of lead is uncertain.

Is there a medical test to determine whether I have been exposed to lead?

There is a blood test that measures exposure to lead.

For more information contact:

Indiana State Department of Health
Environmental Epidemiology Section
2 N. Meridian Street, Section 3-D
Indianapolis, IN 46204
317/351-7190 Ext 262

This fact sheet was supported in whole by funds from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act trust fund through a cooperative agreement with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.