Lead - Questions & Answers

What is Lead?

Lead is a heavy, low melting, bluish-gray metal that occurs naturally in the Earth’s crust. It is rarely found as a metal. It is usually combined with two or more other elements to form lead compounds.

Where is Lead found?

Lead is used as a pigment in paints, dyes, and ceramic glazes and in caulk, although the amount of lead in these products has been greatly reduced in recent years. Tetraethyl and tetramethyl lead was used as an additive in gasoline until the 1996 when its use was banned. It is still used in fuel for off-road vehicles and airplanes. Lead is used in ammunition which is its largest non battery use, but again the amount of lead in this application is being reduced due to the impact on the environment. Most lead these days comes from lead-acid batteries with about 97% of these being recycled.

Where does environmental levels of Lead come from?

Although Lead occurs naturally in the environment, wherever high levels of Lead are measured it is the direct result of human activity. Examples of these are use of leaded gasoline, mining, factories that use Lead or Leaded materials. Lead was even used in pesticides.

What are sources of Lead in the environment?

Lead may come from weathering or chipping of Lead-based paints off of building, bridges, or other structures. Landfills may contain waste from ore mining, ammunition manufacturing, or battery production. Past use of Lead in gasoline is a major contributor to Lead in soil near roads. Small amounts of lead may enter rivers, lakes, and streams from runoff of contaminated soil. Lead may also enter the water system from Lead solder used in plumbing.

How might I be exposed to Lead?

You may be exposed to Lead if you live near a hazardous waste site or landfill. Eating food or drinking water in buildings containing lead pipes is another source of exposure. You may be exposed to Lead of you work in a job or have a hobby where Lead is typically used. If you purchase ceramics made outside the US you may be exposed to Lead in the Glazes used in their production. Cigarette smoking is also a source of Lead exposure. Other sources of lead are inexpensive costume jewelry, hair colorants, cosmetics, and dyes.

People working in the following jobs may be exposed to Lead:

  • Lead Smelting and Refining
  • Brass/Bronze foundries
  • Rubber and Plastics industries
  • Soldering
  • Steel Welding
  • Battery Manufacturing
  • Construction/Demolition
  • Pottery/Ceramics
  • Radiator Repair Painters

How does Lead enter and leave my body?

The main routes of entry for Lead are inhalation, ingestion, and skin absorption. Lead can be inhaled if it is present in airborne concentrations. Once in the lungs it can be absorbed into the bloodstream or regurgitated and then swallowed. Lead can be ingested with food, drink, smoking or any other activity that allows contaminated items to be brought to the mouth. It is important to note that only about 6% of the total amount of lead ingested actually makes it into the bloodstream. Lead contaminated soil or dust can be absorbed through the skin. But good hygiene practices and Personal Protective Equipment can prevent this type of exposure.

What happens to Lead once it enters my body?

Lead, once it is in the bloodstream will deposit in soft tissue organs such as the liver, kidneys, lungs, brain, spleen, muscles, and heart. After several weeks most of the Lead will move to your bones and teeth. In adults about 94% of the lead in the body will be stored in your teeth and bones.

Can my body change Lead into other compounds?

Your body does not change Lead into any other form. Once it is taken in and distributed to your organs, the Lead that is not stored leaves your body in your urine or your feces. About 99% of the Lead taken into the body will leave the body as waste within a few weeks.

How does Lead affect my health?

The effects of Lead are the same regardless of the route of entry. The main target for Lead toxicity is the nervous system. Lead exposure my cause Weakness in the fingers, wrists, or ankles. Small increases in blood pressure or anemia may be observed. Extremely high levels of Lead may cause brain or kidney damage and ultimately death can occur. In Pregnant women, high Lead levels can cause miscarriage. In men low sperm counts can be caused by high levels of Lead.

How can I reduce my risk of exposure to Lead?

The single most important way to prevent or reduce exposure to Lead is to thoroughly wash your hands prior to eating, drinking, or smoking. Also food, drink, and cigarettes should never be stored or ingested in any area where Lead may be present. If you are doing work in any area where you believe Lead may be present in the paint, or on surfaces, contact the Environmental Health and Safety Department to evaluate the area before doing any work. If Personal Protective Equipment (i.e. gloves, etc.) is required in your job, you should ensure that you utilize them properly and dispose of them when the task is completed.

Is there a medical test to determine if I have been exposed to Lead?

Yes. X-rays can determine the amount of Lead in your bones and tissues, but simple blood lead level tests are usually used to determine the level of Lead in your blood.

How does the Government regulate Lead to prevent exposure above normal background levels?

The Environmental Protection Agency(EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration(OSHA), and the Food and Drug Administration(FDA) all have responsibility for regulating Lead levels. In addition the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry(ATSDR) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health(NIOSH) make recommendations regarding Lead exposure.

Can I be exposed to Lead at Austin Community College?

While there are some areas of the College where Lead is present, it is highly unlikely that any exposure is possible. Lead paint and window glazing are the most likely sources and these have all been identified and where needed abatement has occurred or will occur to remove the Lead. We do not have Lead piping in our buildings or use Lead containing solder when doing any plumbing work or repairs. It is important to stress that the simple act of washing your hands prior to eating, drinking, or smoking will help ensure that you will not be exposed to Lead.

Where can I get additional information on Lead?

You can get additional information on Lead by visiting the websites of the EPA, OSHA, FDA, ATSDR, or NIOSH or contact the College’s Environmental Health and Safety Department.