Lead Poisoning

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What is it?

Lead poisoning is a preventable condition that results from environmental or occupational exposure to lead. This exposure can result in permanent health damage, especially among children.

Lead poisoning can affect almost all parts of the body, including the central nervous system, kidneys, and reproductive organs. It commonly causes weakness and abdominal discomfort and less often causes abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation, foot and wrist drop and anaemia. In children especially, it impairs cognitive development, which can lead to learning disabilities and behavioural problems. At very high levels, it can even result in hallucinations, coma, seizures, and death.

Environmental lead exposure comes from inhaling or ingesting lead laden dust. This can come from sources such as deteriorated paint containing lead found in older houses. Drinking water can also be contaminated if plumbing parts, such as pipes, are made of lead. Recent reports have included exposure from imported folk remedies, health foods, cosmetics and toys that have been contaminated with lead. Children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning as they have an increased hand to mouth behaviour which may include ingestion of lead contaminated items such as soil and paint chips. There is also an increased risk of lead exposure to a developing foetus if pregnant women are exposed.

As poisoning from lead became known as a problem, lead began to be removed from paint products and unleaded petrol was introduced. Following these and other measures, there has been a significant reduction in blood lead concentrations in the general population of the UK and many other countries.

Adult lead exposure is usually either from the workplace or from hobbies. Children may be affected if contaminants are brought home from the workplace on clothing. Examples of situations potentially leading to lead exposure are listed below:

Work Settings

  • lead smelting plants
  • construction work
  • steel welding
  • bridge reconstruction
  • firing range instructors and cleaners
  • remodelling and refinishing
  • foundry work
  • scrap metal and battery recycling
  • auto repair work
  • cable splicing and
  • battery, glass and ceramic ware manufacture

In England and Wales the Health and Safety Executive requires some 15,000 workers to be regularly monitored for lead poisoning.


  • casting bullets, lead shot or fishing sinkers
  • home remodelling
  • target shooting at firing ranges
  • lead soldering
  • auto repair work
  • stained glass work and
  • glazed pottery work

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