Lead has been used for thousands of years for its durability and other qualities that made it easy to work with. Although it is a natural mineral, it is a heavy metal and is harmful to the human body even at low levels of exposure. Childhood lead poisoning occurs when a child's body absorbs lead from the environment, such as through touching soil or dust, through lead-contaminated air or food, or through water.
The greatest sources of lead exposure in the US in the 20th Century were from leaded paint and leaded gasoline. Lead in paint flakes off into the dust of the home and this dust can be rapidly absorbed into children's bodies. Leaded gasoline contaminates the atmosphere when it is burned, staying in the air before it settles onto the ground. Lead in paint was banned from use in housing in 1978 and leaded gasoline was phased out in the 1990's, and as a result levels of lead in the atmosphere dropped dramatically. However this legacy of use has left many sources of exposure in the environment, and many children are still at risk of lead poisoning through contact with lead-contaminated soil or from paint chipping or flaking in older homes.
Lead is also still regularly used in a variety of consumer products such as some toys, candies, spices, and artisanal make-up, the use of which can put a family at risk of lead poisoning. Other potential sources of lead exposure for children include living close to sources of lead emissions, and exposure to a lead-contaminated water source.
For more information on sources of lead in the environment, visit