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General Information

Browse the information below or go to the full printable version of the  lead fact sheet (pdf)

What is Lead?

Lead is a naturally occurring metal found in the earth's crust. Lead has been mined, processed, and used in commercial and household products for thousands of years. In the past lead was used in paint, gasoline, pottery, water pipes and other products. Unfortunately, when lead gets into the body it is a poison and harms people. Once lead enters the human environment, there is no way to destroy it or make it harmless. Therefore, we must control exposure to lead.

What is Lead Poisoning?

When lead gets into the body it is a poison and harms people. Lead poisoning occurs when too much lead builds up in the body. Children and adults can get lead poisoning by breathing or swallowing dust that contains lead. Your body does not have a use for lead. When it is absorbed, it affects almost every body system. Even small amounts can be harmful.

A piece of lead as small as a grain of sand is enough to poison a child.
(Centers for Disease Control,1991)

Who can get Lead Poisoning?

Anyone can get lead poisoning. Lead is most dangerous to young children because their bodies and brains are still growing and developing. Lead can interfere with normal brain development, resulting in permanently reduced IQ and behavioral problems. Young children are more at risk for exposure to lead because children explore their environment by putting their toys, hand and other objects in their mouths. If children put objects with lead dust in their mouths, they can become lead poisoned. In addition, they spend a lot of time on the floor where sources of lead are likely to be found. Young children also absorb lead more easily than adults. Lead poisoned children may suffer life-long problems as a result of their exposure at a young age.


Where Do Lead Hazards Come From?

Paint

Lead was used in paint until 1978 when its use was limited in household paint. Many  buildings built before 1978 have lead-based paint inside and outside. Nationwide, lead remains in approximately 74 % of all housing built before 1978 (Housing and Urban Development). Housing built before 1950 is more likely to contain lead-based paint. Lead paint in good condition is not usually a problem except in places where painted surfaces rub against each other and create dust, such as where windows open and close. Chipping, peeling or chalking lead paint is a common source of lead dust and may be a hazard. Lead-based paint may also be found on older toys, furniture and playground equipment.

Dust

Lead dust is the main cause of lead poisoning in children. Windows, doors, steps and porches are areas where surfaces rub together and create lead dust. Lead dust can gather on floors, in carpets, on toys and other objects that children may put into their mouths. Lead dust is increased during remodeling or repainting. Home renovations and remodeling contribute to nearly half of the childhood lead poisonings in Oregon.

Lead dust, which you can't always see, can be a serious health hazard to young children.

Soil
Soil and dirt around homes and apartment buildings may contain lead. Soil may contain lead from lead-based paint or from exhaust fumes from cars. Children may come into contact with lead by playing in bare dirt. Lead in the soil may enter vegetables planted in the garden. Outside play areas and food gardens should be located away from houses and buildings and away from areas that could be contaminated by heavy car traffic.

Pottery

Imported, old, handmade or poorly glazed ceramic dishes and pottery may have lead in the glaze. Lead may also be found in leaded crystal, pewter and brass dishware. Acidic foods stored in improperly glazed containers are the most dangerous. Acidic foods or drinks (such as orange, tomato and other fruit juices, tomato sauces, wines, and vinegar) may cause an increase in the release of lead from these types of tableware. You cannot always tell by looking at a dish whether it contains lead. The only way to know for sure is to test or have the tableware tested for lead. If it is not known whether or not a particular tableware item contains lead, the item should not be used to store, cook or serve food or beverages. If any tableware starts to show a dusty or chalky gray residue after washing, discontinue using the item. Purchase dishes with labels that state the item is lead-free or suitable for food use.

Workplaces & Hobbies

Lead can also be brought into the home from the workplace or hobbies. Welding, auto or boat repair, the making of ceramics, stained glass, bullets, and fishing weights are hobbies that may use lead. Other hobbies that carry a potential for exposure to lead include furniture refinishing, home remodeling, painting and target shooting at firing ranges. By following a few simple precautions, hobbyists can reduce the risk of exposure to lead and protect themselves and their families. People who work in a lead environment may bring lead dust into their car or home on their clothes and bodies exposing family members. Good hygiene needs to be observed to avoid bringing lead dust into the home from the work place.

Water Pipes & Solder
Most well or city water does not naturally contain lead. Lead in drinking water is not a common source of lead poisoning in Oregon. Lead may get into drinking water from household plumbing. Lead solder that connects the pipes or brass faucets may contain lead. Lead from solder is most commonly found in homes built between 1970 and 1985. Lead may get into the water when water sits in pipes. If this happens, the water you use for drinking, cooking or mixing baby formula can cause lead poisoning. If lead in plumbing is suspected, water from a hot water tap should not be used for drinking or food preparation. The cold-water tap should be flushed for several minutes each morning or after sitting until there is a noticeable change in temperature of the water before any water is consumed.

Food

In recent years, lead has been found in candy imported from Mexico. Laboratory testing done in California found lead in some Mexican candy, the wrappers and the clay pots that some of the candy comes in.

Home Remedies & Cosmetics

Some families may use home remedies to cure sick people. Many home remedies may contain up to 100% lead and are very dangerous to children. Azarcon, a bright orange powder, and Greta, a yellow powder, may be used in the Hispanic community for indigestion or upset stomach. Similar remedies are known as Liga, Alarcon, Rueda, Maria Luisa, Coral, and Albayalde. Pay-loo-ah, Ghasard, Bali Goli, and Kandu are remedies containing lead that may be used in some Asian communities. Certain cosmetics, especially those from the Middle East, India, and Asia, may also contain high levels of lead. Cosmetics known to contain lead are Kohl, Suma, and Cerise. These are commonly used as eyeliner. Kohl (or alkohl), which is used in Middle Eastern and East Indian cultures, is also applied to skin infections. Manufactured cosmetics generally do not contain lead.

More information on possible sources of lead