What is lead exposure?
Lead is a naturally occurring heavy metal and has a soft greyish-blue colour. People can be exposed to lead in the environment through the air, dusts, food and water. Lead is mainly absorbed into the body from eating or inhalation.
When absorbed into the body, lead will circulate in the blood and can remain in the soft tissues and organs (e.g. kidneys, liver and brain) and is stored in bone and teeth. Lead absorption through the skin is very slow although repeated exposure to low levels of lead can cause it to build up in the body.
Lead interferes with the production of haemoglobin (a protein in the blood which transports oxygen) which can cause tiredness and shortness of breath during physical activity. Very high levels of lead are uncommon in Australia but can be fatal.
The levels of lead detected in the Australian population have been steadily decreasing.
Where is lead found?
Lead can be found in:
- fishing weights or sinkers
- bullets and pellets
- printing materials (printer ink, typesetting materials)
- ceramic cookware, glazes and glass; particularly when improperly fired and then used in cooking or to store acidic, hot or alcoholic foods
- some imported cosmetics and pigments (colours)
- paints (particularly industrial paints)
- plastics and protective coatings
- imported toys (may contain lead or be coated with lead-based coating)
- playground equipment (paint coatings may contain lead, particularly if older than 1998)
- imported herbal preparations
- petrol (leaded petrol is no longer used in Australia except under special license) and petrol additives
Who is most at risk of lead exposure?
Pregnant women need to minimise their exposure to lead because it can cross from the mother to the baby through the placenta. Small amounts of lead can also transfer into breast milk. Pregnant or breastfeeding women need to keep well away from areas which may be contaminated with lead and avoid activities which generate fumes or dust that is contaminated with lead.
Young children are more sensitive to the effects of lead and are likely to absorb up to 5 times more ingested lead than adults. Children can often place objects in their mouths, suck their fingers and may swallow dust and soil, making them more vulnerable to lead exposure. Give young children regular meals and snacks – a child with an empty stomach can absorb 7 times more lead than a child that has eaten.
People with iron and calcium deficiencies also tend to absorb more lead and are encouraged to eat a balanced diet with adequate levels of calcium, iron, vitamin C, zinc and magnesium. Good sources of iron include poultry, red meat, liver, fish, fortified cereal, cooked beans/lentils, and green leafy vegetables. Milk, cheese and yoghurt are good sources of calcium.
How does lead exposure occur?
Eating food and drinking water
There are very small amounts of lead in food and drinking water, however in Australia the lead levels in water are very rarely above the limits set by the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (external site).
The maximum levels of lead allowable in food are set out in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (external site) (the Code) by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). FSANZ monitors the food supply in Australia to ensure that food regulatory measures are adequate to protect consumer health and safety.
Canned food is no longer a source of dietary lead; all cans used in Australia now have welded seams (instead of lead soldered cans).
In Australia, dietary exposure of lead from food is below the determined low risk level and has decreased over the past decade.
The inhalation of lead can occur when tiny lead particles and fumes from heating, welding or lead contaminated dust are released into the environment.
Some hobbies and past-times can generate lead dust and fumes which may contaminate air, food, water and soil, including:
- restoration of boats, homes, cars or furniture covered with a lead-based paint
- pottery (glazing and firing)
- lead casting (production of ammunition, toy soldiers and fishing sinkers)
- burning of materials containing lead or covered with a lead-based coating (wood or plastics)
- recycling materials containing lead or coated with lead-based products (motor vehicle bodies, batteries, electronic equipment)
- smoking (elevated blood lead levels are consistently found in adults and children whose parents smoke)
- lead lighting
Signs and symptoms
Symptoms of lead exposure can be difficult to recognise. Your GP or doctor should be consulted if lead exposure is suspected.
Very high levels of lead in the blood (70-100 micrograms per decilitre (µg/dL) or greater) can cause acute lead poisoning and may occur during situations where lead is handled inappropriately or unsafely.
The absorption of very high levels of lead into the body is considered a clinical emergency and symptoms can include:
- stomach pain
- loss of consciousness and even death.
These instances are now extremely rare in Australia and there is more focus on long-term effects of ongoing exposure to low levels of lead.
Some of the long-term effects include:
- general fatigue
- blood circulation problems
- weakness in the fingers, wrists and ankles
- reduced fertility
- reduced kidney and brain function.
Exposure guidelines for lead and lead compounds
In August 2009 the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommended that:
- all Australians should have a blood lead level below 10 µg/dL
- all children's exposure to lead should be minimised
- all women are advised to minimise their exposure to lead both before and during pregnancy and also while breastfeeding.
In 2010, the Department of Health WA (DoH) adopted the NHMRC recommendations and also adopted the policy that there is an action (goal) level of 5 µg/dL for children 5 years of age or younger. This action level is to pre-empt an investigation and/or advice relating to minimising exposure of young children to lead in the environment.
The NHMRC recommendations for blood lead levels are currently under review and will be changed to a recommended level of 5 µg/dL for everyone. This amendment is likely to be implemented towards middle of 2015.
How to reduce your risk of lead exposure
Read information about how to reduce your exposure to lead.
Where to get help
- See your doctor.
- Visit a GP after hours.
- Ring healthdirect Australia on 1800 022 222.
- Call the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 (24 hours a day) if you suspect poisoning.
- For information on exposure at work contact WorkSafe Customer Help Centre on 1300 307 877 or to report an incident call 1800 678 198.
- Contact the Environmental Health Directorate on 9388 4999.
- Lead can be found in batteries, cigarettes, paints and imported toys.
- Young children, pregnant women and people with an iron deficiency have a higher risk of lead poisoning.
- Very high levels of lead are uncommon in Australia but can be fatal.
This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.