Lead – Pollution Tracker (2023)

What is it?

Lead occurs naturally in the environment as a trace element, and major natural sources include volcanoes and weathering of rocks. Human activities, including mining, smelting, coal combustion, and waste incineration, have greatly increased the distribution and abundance of lead in the environment.1 Lead is also used in the production of batteries, dyes, paints, and metal alloys. Its properties (including high density, low melting point, malleability, and corrosion resistance) have made lead the primary metal used to manufacture ammunition and fishing weights.1

Lead – Pollution Tracker (1)

How does it get into the ocean?

Lead can enter the marine environment through effluent from large-scale mining and lead smelting activities.1 The long range atmospheric transport of lead can also result in its deposition in the marine environment.2 When lead enters aquatic systems, it is deposited in sediments in association with particulate matter; therefore, sediments act as an important exposure route for marine organisms.3

For both aquatic and terrestrial bird species, the most important exposure route appears to be spent ammunition and lost fishing tackle. Direct exposure occurs via the consumption of lead or lead-contaminated objects, while indirect exposure occurs when predators and scavengers eat animals that were shot with lead ammunition or that ingested lead fishing tackle.1,4

Is it a problem?

Human exposure to lead results largely from environmental sources such as lead-based paints and contaminated dusts and soils.5 There is no ‘safe’ level of lead exposure in humans.6

(Video) Tracking Lead Pollution in Bodies of Water

In human adults, lead exposure can cause dysfunction in the cardiovascular, reproductive, renal, and central nervous systems.7 It is classified as a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). In children, lead exposure can cause IQ deficits, ADHD, behavioural challenges, impaired dental health, and delayed sexual maturation.7

Most of the research on lead toxicity in wildlife has been done on birds. Lead poisoning can result in toxicity to kidneys, bones, and the neurological, reproductive, and central nervous systems.1 Specific symptoms include lethargy, anorexia, breast-muscle atrophy, loss of strength and coordination, drooping wings, and changes in vocalization.1

In the Pacific Ocean, there is a decommissioned military base on Midway Atoll, which has become a significant source of lead in the form of lead-based paint. The ingestion of lead-based paint chips by Laysan albatross chicks resulted in ‘droopwing’ (a symptom of neurotoxicity) and mortality.5

There is much less information regarding the toxicity of lead to marine mammals. In one example, a stranded female harbour seal died despite rehabilitation attempts. A necropsy revealed a lead fishing sinker in her stomach, and changes to the brain, heart, kidney, liver, lymph nodes, and spleen indicated acute lead toxicosis. This was the first documented case of lead toxicosis in a wild marine mammal.8

FACT: The first documented case of lead toxicosis in a wild marine mammal occurred in northern California in 2004. An adult harbour seal died after ingesting a lead fishing sinker.8

Wildlife exposed to lead can also experience toxicity to the immune and neurological systems without showing any obvious signs of dysfunction. In one study, herring gull hatchlings experienced neurological toxicity resulting from lead exposure during early development, and the authors suggested that these impairments may compromise the ability of chicks to survive in the wild.9

(Video) Mission Unleaded: How to test children for lead with maximum accuracy

What is being done?

The use of lead in products, including paint and gasoline, has been banned in many countries, including Canada and the United States.10,11 Many countries, including Canada, have banned the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting.12 However, only Sweden and Denmark have banned lead ammunition for all forms of hunting. Denmark has also banned all lead fishing tackle (as of 2002), and lead tackle has been banned in the United Kingdom since 1987. In Canada, it is illegal to use lead fishing tackle weighing less than 50 grams in National Parks and National Wildlife Areas.14 In the United States, individual parks and refuges make decisions about the use of lead fishing gear.

Canadian marine sediment quality guidelines for lead are available (Table 1); however, these guidelines are derived from toxicity endpoints in benthic invertebrates and, therefore, are not protective of birds and marine mammals.  

Table 1. Federal and British Columbia Marine Sediment Quality Guidelines for Lead 13,15
Lead – Pollution Tracker (2)

Tsleil-Waututh Nation and the British Columbia Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy are collaboratively updating water quality objectives for Burrard Inlet in the Metro Vancouver area. As part of this process, tissue screening values for fish and shellfish protective of human health have been developed for several contaminants of concern, including lead. These screening values represent a suggested safe level of contaminants in fish tissue. Exceedance of screening levels may indicate that further investigation to assess human health risk is warranted but does not imply risk to human health.16

What can we do?

As individuals and organizations, we can:

  • Learn more about lead and other toxic metals using the resource links below
  • Recycle and dispose of waste responsibly and according to local guidelines

More Information?

1 Haig SM, D’Elia J, Eagles-Smith C, Fair JM, Gervais J, Herring G, Rivers JW, Schulz JH. 2014. The persistent problem of lead poisoning in birds from ammunition and fishing tackle. The Condor 116: 408-428.

(Video) Tracking Lead Contamination in City Soil Using Portable XRF

2 Nordic Council of Ministers (NCM). 2003. Lead Review. Report No. 1, Issue No. 4. 31 pp.

3 Eisler R. 1988. Lead hazards to fish, wildlife, and invertebrates a synoptic review. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biological Report 85(1.14) 134 pp.

4 Finkelstein ME, Doak, DF, George D, Burnett J, Brandt J, Church M, Grantham J, Smith DR. 2012. Lead poisoning and the deceptive recovery of the critically endangered California condor. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109: 11449-11454.

5 Finkelstein ME, Gwiazda RH, Smith DR. 2003. Lead poisoning of seabirds: Environmental risks from leaded paint at a decommissioned military base. Environmental Science and Technology 37: 3256-3260.

6 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2012. Low Level Lead Exposure Harms Children: A Renewed Call for Primary Prevention. Report of the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/ACCLPP/Final_Document_030712.pdf

7 Bellinger DC. 2011. The protean toxicities of lead: New chapters in a familiar story. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 8: 2593-2628.

(Video) A personal air-quality tracker that lets you know what you're breathing | Romain Lacombe

8 Zabka TS, Haulena M, Puschner B, Gulland FMD, Conrad PA, Lowenstine LJ. 2006. Acute lead toxicosis in a harbor seal (Phoca vitulina richardsi) consequent to ingestion of a lead fishing sinker. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 42: 651-657.

9 Dey PM, Burger J, Gochfeld M, Reuhl KR. 2000. Developmental lead exposure disturbs expression of synaptic neural cell adhesion molecules in herring gull brains. Toxicology 146: 137-147.

10 Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC). 2020. Lead. Environment and Climate Change Canada Fact Sheet. Available at: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/chemical-substances/fact-sheets/chemicals-glance/lead.html

11 United States Geological Survey (USGS). 2009. Lead poisoning in wild birds. United States Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center Fact Sheet 2009-3051.

12 Clark AJ, Scheuhammer AM. 2003. Lead poisoning in upland-foraging birds of prey in Canada. Ecotoxicology12 (1-4): 23-30.

13 Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME). 1998. Canadian sediment quality guidelines. Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, Winnipeg. Available at: Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment | Le Conseil canadien des ministres de l’environment (ccme.ca)

(Video) Tackling Lead Pollution with Drones (Case Study)

14Government of Canada. 2018. National Parks of Canada Fishing Regulations (C.R.C., c. 1120). Canada National Parks Act. Available at: https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/regulations/C.R.C.,_c._1120/FullText.html

15 British Columbia Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. 2021. Working Water Quality Guidelines: Aquatic Life, Wildlife & Agriculture. Water Quality Guideline Series, WQG-08. Prov. B.C., Victoria B.C. Available at: bc_env_working_water_quality_guidelines.pdf (gov.bc.ca)

16Thompson HC, and Stein D. 2021. Tissue Quality Objectives Recommendations for Burrard Inlet. Prepared for Tsleil-Waututh Nation and the Province of B.C. Available at: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/environment/air-land-water/water/waterquality/water-quality-objectives/burrard_inlet_water_quality_objectives_methods_tissue_rec_june_3-_2021.pdf


How do I find lead in my house? ›

Ask the Inspector/Assessor to write you a risk assessment report that will tell you if the lead levels in your home represent a hazard and what options you have for dealing with it. The certified Inspector/Assessor can test your paint with an XRF (x-ray fluorescence) machine, for immediate results.

Why is lead not in AQI? ›

Lead is not included in daily air quality reports

According to an EPA spokesperson, that's because the effects of lead pollution are cumulative. "The AQI focuses on health effects that may be experienced within a few hours or days," the spokesperson said in a written statement.

How do you get rid of lead in your body? ›

Chelation therapy.

In this treatment, a medication given by mouth binds with the lead so that it's excreted in urine. Chelation therapy might be recommended for children with a blood level of 45 mcg/dL or greater and adults with high blood levels of lead or symptoms of lead poisoning.

How do you know if you've been exposed to lead? ›

Symptoms of lead poisoning include headaches, stomach cramps, constipation, muscle/joint pain, trouble sleeping, fatigue, irritability, and loss of sex drive. Most adults with lead poisoning don't look or feel sick.

What common household items contain lead? ›

Lead in Household Items
  • Painted toys, especially older toys.
  • Painted furniture, especially older furniture.
  • Toy jewelry.
  • Cosmetics (makeup)
  • Plumbing products such as pipes and fixtures.
  • Cookware, including food or liquid containers made of lead crystal, lead-glazed pottery. ...
  • Dietary supplements.
  • Traditional (folk) medicines.

Does lead dust stay in the air? ›

Of course you can get lead poisoning from breathing in lead dust. But when lead dust travels through the air, it settles in soil and water, and blows inside your home and even onto neighboring properties. If you touch something that has lead dust on it and then put your hand to your mouth, you can ingest it.

Is lead dust everywhere? ›

Lead is still part of our world today. It is found in the air, soil, dust, and the paint of some homes or buildings built before 1978. Exposure to lead can cause serious health problems.

Can you get lead poisoning through the air? ›

Lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust in older buildings are common sources of lead poisoning in children. Other sources include contaminated air, water and soil.

How do you reduce lead in the air? ›

Clean debris out of outlet screens or faucet aerators on a regular basis. Wash children's hands, bottles, pacifiers and toys often. Teach children to wipe and remove their shoes and wash hands after playing outdoors. Ensure that your family members eat well-balanced meals.

What food is high in lead? ›

However, surprisingly high lead levels have been found in some of our favorite foods, like chocolate, peas, cannabis (sorry), sweet potatoes, and mustard greens, as well as other crops. That means lead can wind up in the products you may have in your pantry, like these: baby food. fruit juice.

Does lead stay in you forever? ›

The half-life of lead in adult human blood has been estimated as 28 days. The body accumulates lead over a lifetime and normally releases it very slowly.

What foods remove lead from the body? ›

Liver, iron-fortified cereals, red meats, molasses, spinach and greens (kale, collard, etc.), dried beans or peas, oysters, lentils, soybeans, sardines, prune juice, scallops, shrimp, broccoli. Eat low-fat or nonfat dairy foods, lean red meat, poultry, fish, dried beans and peas.

How quickly does lead affect you? ›

How long it takes a child to absorb toxic levels of lead depends on the concentration of lead in the dust. Rosen says that in a typical lead-contaminated housing unit, it takes one to six months for a small child's blood-lead levels to rise to a level of concern.

Can you reverse lead poisoning? ›

Is lead poisoning curable? The effects of lead poisoning aren't reversible. But you can reduce blood lead levels and prevent further exposure by finding and removing the sources of lead from your child's home or environment.

Can you get lead poisoning from a single exposure? ›

It may even be possible to suffer lead poisoning after one exposure if you were exposed to enough lead. Children under the age of six are especially prone to lead poisoning, which means short-term exposure to small amounts of lead can be especially dangerous for them.

What are 2 major sources of lead poisoning? ›

Lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust are the most common sources of lead poisoning.

Do eggs contain lead? ›

All eggs showed evidence of lead exposure, with concentrations of lead in the yolk ranging from 0.003-1.07 mg/kg, and concentrations of lead in the eggshell ranging from <0.1-0.82 mg/kg.

Does vacuuming remove lead dust? ›

You can use a special vacuum cleaner called a High Efficiency Particulate Air Filter (HEPA) vacuum to clean up lead. The HEPA vacuum has a special filter that can pick up and hold small pieces of lead. Another option is to use a wet/dry vacuum in the wet setting to clean up the wash or rinse water.

Can air purifiers remove lead dust? ›

Using a HEPA air purifier is also a good idea, both during renovation and after, as it will capture lead particles and reduce your family's risk of lead poisoning by inhalation.

Does washing remove lead dust? ›

Washable surfaces in the cars and homes of workers should be washed with detergents to remove lead dust.

Can you absorb lead through your skin? ›

Dermal exposure plays a role for exposure to organic lead among workers, but is not considered a significant pathway for the general population. Organic lead may be absorbed directly through the skin. Organic lead (tetraethyl lead) is more likely to be absorbed through the skin than inorganic lead.

Can you just paint over lead paint? ›

Painting over lead paint can be considered a form of “encapsulation,” which is one of the EPA-approved ways to remediate lead paint hazards. However, this requires the use of a special material called an “encapsulant.” Regular store-bought paint by itself is not sufficient to safely encapsulate lead paint.

How common is lead exposure? ›

Lead poisoning is very common. 1 in 40 children ages 1-5 years old have blood lead levels that are considered unsafe (over 5 µg/dL).

What is the most common exposure to lead? ›

Dust. Lead dust is the most common way that people are exposed to lead. Inside the home, most lead dust comes from chipping and flaking paint or when paint is scraped, sanded, or disturbed during home remodeling. Chipping and peeling paint is found mostly on surfaces that rub or bump up against another surface.

Can lead poisoning show up years later? ›

Once lead is in the body, it can can also be stored in bone for years. Even after exposure stops, the lead can come back into the bloodstream and continue to damage the brain and other organs for years to come.

What is the antidote for lead poisoning? ›

There is no antidote for lead. Treatment of lead poisoning consists of removal from the source of exposure. Chelation therapy should be considered for treatment of severe symptoms or markedly elevated blood lead levels.

At what temperature does lead give off toxic fumes? ›

Lead dust consists of solid particles created through processes such as blasting, sanding, grinding, and electric or pneumatic cutting. Lead fumes are produced when lead or lead-contaminated materials are heated to temperatures above 500 °C , such as welding, high temperature cutting, and burning operations.

Can Heat get rid of lead? ›

Hot tap water can dissolve lead more easily and is likely to have higher lead levels. Furthermore, boiling water does not reduce or remove lead. Bathing and showering is safe for you and children, even if there is lead in the water.

How can I reduce lead in my home? ›

Wash bottles, pacifiers, toys, and stuffed animals regularly. Keep children from chewing window sills or other painted surfaces. Clean or remove shoes before entering your home to avoid tracking in lead from soil. Make sure children eat healthy and nutritious meals as recommended by the National Dietary Guidelines.

Is coffee high in lead? ›

In general, it can be concluded that the intake of lead from coffee is low compared to the intake from other dietary sources, and that it does not constitute a major part of the total dietary intake lead.

Do bananas have lead? ›

The data were subjected to statistical analysis to compare the mean of the heavy metal scores of the banana samples. A p-value <0.05 was considered significant. Results: Green Mutant banana variety had the lowest lead content (0.0107 mg/kg). Mercury was not present in all the banana samples.

Does milk get rid of lead? ›

The calcium in milk and other dairy foods also helps prevent lead from being absorbed into the body. Children need 2 to 3 servings of milk or other dairy foods a day. More servings are not necessary. Children who drink too much milk are often not interested in eating other healthy foods.

How long have humans known lead is toxic? ›

Lead's toxicity was recognized and recorded as early as 2000 BC and the widespread use of lead has been a cause of endemic chronic plumbism in several societies throughout history. The Greek philosopher Nikander of Colophon in 250 BC reported on the colic and anemia resulting from lead poisoning.

What age group is at the highest risk for lead poisoning? ›

Children less than six years old are at a higher risk of lead exposure. This is because their bodies are rapidly developing and more susceptible to taking in lead if exposed. Young children also tend to put their hands or other objects into their mouths.

Can you handle lead with bare hands? ›

Lead becomes airborne when it is heated or abraded. It is unlikely that solid lead buckshot would produce an airborne-exposure level above the PEL or the action level of 30 µg/m3. However, it is advisable to wear gloves while handling the lead shot and to always wash your hands before eating, drinking, or smoking.

What vitamin removes lead? ›

For reducing blood lead levels, vitamin C, vitamin E, thiamine (B1), folate (B9) and iron have the strongest and most consistent blood lead links.

Does garlic remove lead? ›

Scientists believe that the sulfur in garlic helps to oxidize heavy metals like lead, helping dispel them from the body. Studies done more recently than 1960 have also shown that the symptoms of lead toxicity can lessen by taking garlic extract.

Is brain damage from lead poisoning permanent? ›

At high levels, lead can cause permanent damage to the brain and nervous system. This damage can lead to seizures, loss of muscle control, and coma.

Does lead poisoning show up in blood work? ›

Most children with any lead in their blood have no obvious immediate symptoms. If a child may have been exposed to lead, parents should talk to their child's health care provider about getting a blood lead test. Healthcare providers and most local health departments can test for lead in the blood.

How long does it take for lead to show up in blood? ›

A simple blood test will show lead exposure within the last 20 to 30 days, but will not show earlier exposure because lead settles into a person's bones, like calcium.

How soon after lead exposure should you be tested? ›

Children with BLLs ≥45 µg/dL or with symptoms of lead poisoning should have an immediate (within 48 hours) confirmatory test.

What does lead in walls look like? ›

Chief among them is “alligatoring,” which happens when the paint starts to crack and wrinkle, creating a pattern that resembles reptilian scales. This is a sign that your paint may contain lead. Another sign that you might be dealing with lead paint is if it produces a chalky residue when it rubs off.

What happens if you have lead in your house? ›

Lead Paint Risks

Lead can cause damage to the brain and other vital organs, as well as behavioral problems, learning disabilities, seizures, and even death. Young children and pregnant women, in particular, are at risk, but people (and animals) of any age can experience lead-caused health problems.

What is the most common source of lead poisoning found in residential property? ›

Lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust are the most common sources of lead poisoning. Paint containing lead was not banned in the United States until 1978. Homes built before 1978 have a good chance of having lead-based paint, which can chip, peel or flake.

Can touching lead harm you? ›

Lead exposure occurs when a child comes in contact with lead by touching, swallowing, or breathing in lead or lead dust. Exposure to lead can seriously harm a child's health and cause well-documented adverse effects such as: Damage to the brain and nervous system. Slowed growth and development.

How easy is it to get lead poisoning? ›

Adults can get lead poisoning by being exposed to lead through eating food and drinking water contaminated with lead. They may eat from dishes or drink from cups contaminated with lead. If you work in an environment with lead paint or are working on a home remodel, you could be exposed to lead dust.

Which foods are high in lead? ›

However, surprisingly high lead levels have been found in some of our favorite foods, like chocolate, peas, cannabis (sorry), sweet potatoes, and mustard greens, as well as other crops. That means lead can wind up in the products you may have in your pantry, like these: baby food. fruit juice.


1. Tracking Environmental Health Data for Public Health Decision Making
(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC))
2. Source of lead contamination found flying under the radar
(WDSU News)
3. Microbial contamination tracking in water
(Science Animated)
4. WHO: Breathe Life - How air pollution impacts your body
(World Health Organization (WHO))
5. The Real Story of Lead Poisoning in NYC
(The Greene Space at WNYC & WQXR)
6. Lead Contamination Cleanup: Preliminary Area of Investigation
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