Lead Properties and Uses

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Summary Statement

Lead is a heavy, low melting, bluish-gray metal that occurs naturally in the Earth's crust. However, it is rarely found naturally as a metal. It is usually found combined with two or more other elements to form lead compounds. Metallic lead is resistant to corrosion (i.e., not easily attacked by air or water). Lead is easily molded and shaped. Lead can be combined with other metals to form alloys. Lead and lead alloys are commonly found in pipes, storage batteries, weights, shot and ammunition, cable covers, and sheets used to shield us from radiation. The largest use for lead is in storage batteries in cars and other vehicles. Lead compounds are used as a pigment in paints, dyes, and ceramic glazes and in caulk. The amount of lead used in these products has been reduced in recent years to minimize lead's harmful effect on people and animals. Tetraethyl lead and tetramethyl lead were once used in the United States as gasoline additives to increase octane rating. However, their use was phased out in the United States in the 1980s, and lead was banned for use in gasoline for motor vehicles beginning January 1, 1996.. Lead used in ammunition, which is the largest non-battery end-use. Most lead used by industry comes from mined ores or from recycled scrap metal or batteries. Lead is mined in the United States, primarily in Alaska and Missouri. However, most lead today is "secondary" lead obtained from lead-acid batteries. It is reported that 97% of these batteries are recycled. Environmental levels of lead have increased more than 1,000-fold over the past three centuries as a result of human activity. The greatest increase occurred between the years 1950 and 2000, and reflected increasing worldwide use of leaded gasoline. Lead can enter the environment through releases from mining lead and other metals, and from factories that make or use lead, lead alloys, or lead compounds. Lead is released into the air during burning coal, oil, or waste. Before the use of leaded gasoline was banned, most of the lead released into the U.S. environment came from vehicle exhaust. Breathing in, or swallowing airborne dust and dirt, is another way you can be exposed to lead. People who are exposed at work are usually exposed by breathing in air that contains lead particles. Exposure to lead occurs in many jobs. People who work in lead smelting and refining industries, brass/bronze foundries, rubber products and plastics industries, soldering, steel welding and cutting operations, battery manufacturing plants, and lead compound manufacturing industries may be exposed to lead. Construction and demolition workers and people who work at municipal waste incinerators, pottery and ceramics industries, radiator repair shops, and other industries that use lead solder may also be exposed. Painters who sand or scrape old paint may be exposed to lead in dust. Families of workers may be exposed to higher levels of lead when workers bring home lead dust on their work clothes. You may also be exposed to lead in the home if you work with stained glass as a hobby, make lead fishing weights or ammunition, or if you are involved in home renovation that involves the removal of old lead-based paint. Shortly after lead gets into your body, it travels in the blood to the "soft tissues" and organs (such as the liver, kidneys, lungs, brain, spleen, muscles, and heart). After several weeks, most of the lead moves into your bones and teeth. In adults, about 94% of the total amount of lead in the body is contained in the bones and teeth. About 73% of the lead in children's bodies is stored in their bones. Some of the lead can stay in your bones for decades. The effects of lead are the same whether it enters the body through breathing or swallowing. The main target for lead toxicity is the nervous system, both in adults and children. Long-term exposure of adults to lead at work has resulted in decreased performance in some tests that measure functions of the nervous system. Lead exposure may also cause weakness in fingers, wrists, or ankles. Lead exposure also causes small increases in blood pressure, particularly in middle-aged and older people. Lead exposure may also cause anemia. At high levels of exposure, lead can severely damage the brain and kidneys in adults or children and ultimately cause death. In pregnant women, high levels of exposure to lead may cause miscarriage. High-level exposure in men can damage the organs responsible for sperm production.
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