Exposure to small amounts of lead over a long period of time can be hazardous to your health.
Children are more at risk of adverse health effects related to lead exposure because they absorb lead more easily than adults. Children’s brains and nervous systems are also rapidly developing, making them more sensitive to the effects of lead.
What are the health effects of lead exposure?
Exposure to lead may cause a range of health effects. The effects vary depending on the level and length of exposure to lead and the age of the person exposed. Exposure to small amounts of lead over a long time can be hazardous, especially to infants, young children and pregnant women.
Children are more at risk of adverse health effects related to lead exposure because they absorb lead more easily than adults. Children’s brains and nervous systems are also rapidly developing, making them more sensitive to the effects of lead. Infant and child behaviours (for example, crawling on the floor, putting objects in their mouths) may also expose them to lead. During pregnancy, lead can cross the placenta and reach the fetus.
Exposure to small amounts of lead over a long term may cause health effects in the blood system (for example, anaemia or low blood levels), the gastrointestinal system (for example, appetite loss, abdominal pain, constipation) and the nervous system (for example, fatigue, irritability, issues with intellectual development, behaviour and learning problems). No safe blood lead level in children has been determined. Short-term exposure to high levels of lead is very rare in Canada.
What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?
There is no conclusive proof that lead causes cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that inorganic lead is probably carcinogenic to humans, and Health Canada has not formally classified lead compounds with respect to their potential to cause cancer.
What are some sources of lead exposure?
Lead occurs naturally in the environment and has many industrial uses. Everyone is exposed to trace amounts of lead through air, soil, household dust, food, drinking water and various consumer products. Lead is a highly toxic metal that was used for many years in products found in and around our homes. Exposure to lead has decreased significantly since the early 1970s with the phase-out of lead-based paint, leaded gasoline and lead solder in food cans.
Most indoor and outdoor paints produced before the 1960s contained substantial amounts of lead. In general, the older your home, the more likely it has lead-based paint. Lead in paint was reduced to very low levels by the 1960s and was severely limited by 1976.
Lead-based paint does not pose a danger if it is in good condition. Exterior paint with lead carries a warning label. Peeling, chipping, chalking, or cracking lead-based paint is a health hazard and requires immediate attention.
Lead-based paint may also be a hazard when found on surfaces where teething children may chew or where there is a lot of wear and tear. These areas include:
- windows and windowsills
- doors and door frames
Lead-contaminated dust is a particularly large source of exposure for babies and young children. Lead dust can form when lead-based paint is dry scraped, dry sanded or heated. Dust also forms when painted surfaces bump or rub together. Lead chips and dust can get on surfaces and objects that people touch. Lead dust that has settled can re-enter the air when people vacuum, sweep or walk through this dust.
All soils contain some traces of metals, which in very high doses may cause health concerns. Lead can be found in soil around homes and may originate from sources including industry and exterior lead-based paint.
Water supplied through municipal drinking water system is essentially lead-free. However, lead can enter the drinking water from either lead service lines or from solder containing lead. Older homes, particularly those built before the 1960s, often contain lead water service lines. Homes built before the mid- to late-1980s may have their plumbing connected with lead-based solder. When drinking water is left standing for more than 6 hours in household piping made with these materials, lead can dissolve into the drinking water.
Traces of lead are found in almost all foods. Airborne lead falls on garden crops or soil and is absorbed by plants. In Canada, food manufacturers are no longer allowed to use lead-soldered cans. However, lead solder was used in the past for making cans, and may have resulted in lead contamination of food.
Lead is released into the air through industrial emissions, smelters and refineries. With the introduction of unleaded gasoline in Canada in 1975, lead concentrations in the air have declined significantly, falling 76% between 1973 and 1985. Leaded gasoline in cars was banned in Canada in 1990. Since then, levels of lead in the air of most Canadian cities have dropped below detectable limits.
Other sources of lead:
Inexpensive, horizontal PVC (plastic) mini-blinds made in Asia or Mexico may contain lead.
Health Canada recommends that these blinds should not be used in homes where children 6 years of age and under live. These blinds should also be removed from schools and child care locations.
Workers in smelters, refineries and other industries may be exposed to high levels of lead. Lead dust may be breathed in. It can also cling to skin, hair, clothing and vehicles, and be carried into the home, exposing workers’ families. Most provincial governments require that precautions be implemented to protect workers and that workers exposed to lead be monitored for blood lead levels.
Lead can enter food, especially acidic food such as fruit juice, from lead-based glazes on glassware and ceramics. Canadian regulations limit lead content in glazes on glassware and ceramics that are used in preparing, serving or storing food. However, pottery or glassware from abroad may contain enough lead to be a hazard to your health. Leaded crystal is widely used for serving beverages. When the crystal comes in contact with beverages, especially acidic beverages such as port, wine, fruit juices, and soft drinks, some lead dissolves into the liquid. The amount of lead that dissolves depends on the lead content of the crystal, the type of beverage and the length of time that the beverage and crystal are in contact with each other. Drinks should not be served in crystal glasses to pregnant women or children.
Lead fumes or particles can be released when waste oil, coloured newsprint, battery casings, or lead-painted wood is burned. Candles that contain lead in their wicks may also release harmful levels of lead when burned. Using lead solder in a hobby, such as making stained glass, lead shot, or lead fishing weights, may be a significant source of lead exposure.
What are some simple steps to reduce lead exposure?
These simple steps can be taken to immediately reduce potential lead exposure around the home:
- Clean up paint chips immediately.
- Clean floors, window frames, windowsills and other surfaces weekly. Use a mop, sponge or paper towel with warm water and a general all-purpose cleaner, or a cleaner made specifically for lead.
- Thoroughly rinse sponges and mop heads after cleaning dirty or dusty areas.
- Keep play areas as dust-free as possible.
- Wash bottles, pacifiers, toys, and stuffed animals regularly.
- Keep teething children from chewing windowsills or other painted surfaces.
- Clean or remove shoes before going inside to avoid tracking in lead from soil.
- Make sure children eat the right amount and type of food recommended (Health Canada).
- Regularly wash hands and faces of children, particularly after they have played outside and before they eat, nap or sleep.
- Use a high efficiency vacuum on rugs.
- Change the furnace filter regularly.
- Rinse home garden vegetables outside with a garden hose.
- Brush and wash pets outside.
- Wear protective gloves and masks if working in dusty conditions.
Residents in older homes can reduce the amount of lead they drink by taking a few simple steps:
- Always use cold, fresh water for drinking, cooking, making baby formula, and preparing beverages. Avoid using hot tap water for these purposes.
- Do not drink water that has been standing in your household water pipes for more than 6 hours. To rid your plumbing system of standing water, let the water run for 5 minutes or until it feels cold to the touch.
- Flushing the toilet or taking a shower is an effective way to flush standing water from your pipes each morning.
In addition to day-to-day cleaning and good nutrition, lead hazards can be temporarily reduced by repairing damaged painted surfaces and planting grass to cover soil with high lead levels. These actions are called interim controls — they are not permanent solutions and will need ongoing attention. To permanently remove lead hazards, you should hire a certified lead abatement contractor. Permanent hazard elimination methods include removing, sealing or enclosing lead-based paint with special materials. Just painting over the hazard with regular paint is not enough.
A person with special training for correcting lead problems should always be hired, someone who knows how to do this work safely and has the proper equipment to clean up thoroughly. A belt-sander, propane torch, heat gun, dry scraper, or dry sandpaper should never be used to remove lead-based paint. These actions create large amounts of lead dust and fumes.
For more information on preventing exposure to lead, contact Public Health Sudbury & Districts at 705.522.9200 or toll-free at 1.866.522.9200.
This item was last modified on March 12, 2019