Lead poisoning and health

Lead is highly toxic and widespread in our environment. There is no safe level of lead!

Lead is a naturally occurring toxic metal found in the Earth’s crust. Its widespread use has resulted in extensive environmental contamination, human exposure and significant public health problems in many parts of the world.

Lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems and is particularly harmful to young children.

Lead in the body is distributed to the brain, liver, kidney and bones. It is stored in the teeth and bones, where it accumulates over time. Human exposure is usually assessed through the measurement of lead in blood.

Lead in bone is released into blood during pregnancy and becomes a source of exposure to the developing foetus.

There is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe.

Lead exposure is preventable.

Important sources of environmental contamination include mining, smelting, manufacturing and recycling activities, and, in some countries, the continued use of leaded paint, leaded gasoline, and leaded aviation fuel. More than three quarters of global lead consumption is for the manufacture of lead-acid batteries for motor vehicles. Lead is, however, also used in many other products, for example pigments, paints, solder, stained glass, lead crystal glassware, ammunition, ceramic glazes, jewellery, toys and in some cosmetics and traditional medicines. Drinking water delivered through lead pipes or pipes joined with lead solder may contain lead. Much of the lead in global commerce is now obtained from recycling.

Sources and routes of exposure

Lead exposure can come from many sources.


Health effects in children

Young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and can suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects.


Burden of disease from exposure

Lead also causes long-term harm in adults, including increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage. Exposure of pregnant women to high levels of lead can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight.


WHO response

The World Health Organisation is actively campaigning to eliminate the use of lead in paint and for more effective controls to be introduced throughout the world.


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