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Lead is a soft, dense, blue-gray metal that occurs naturally in the Earth's crust. Lead has been widely used in manufacturing and in many products, including paints, solder, glass and crystal, batteries, and metal alloys. Until the 1970's, lead was used in household paint; until the 1980's, lead was added to gasoline. Because of health concerns, lead is no longer added to gasoline or house paint. In the past, lead solder was used for sealing food cans in the United States but this is no longer done.

The Tracking Network includes data on the concentration of lead in blood in NHANES participants aged 1 year and older. Results show that the U.S. population blood lead levels have declined over time, as have the percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels. These reductions are largely due to the removal of lead from gasoline and paint. However, special populations of children remain at high risk for lead exposure – for example, children living in older homes containing lead-based paint or lead-contaminated dust.

Exposure and Risk

A man scrapes paint off the side of a house.

People can be exposed to small amounts of lead by breathing air, drinking water, eating food, or swallowing dust or dirt that contains lead. For adults without workplace exposure, the diet is the source of most lead exposure. In the United States, the major source of childhood lead exposure is lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust in and around buildings with lead paint that were typically built before 1978. Adults who work with lead or who have hobbies involving lead may bring contaminated clothes into the home, which can create exposure for children in the household. Read more about other sources of lead exposure.

Lead can affect almost every organ in the body but the main target is the nervous system. In both adults and children, exposure to high levels of lead can cause anemia and seriously damage the brain, nerves, and kidneys. Exposure to low levels of lead can affect a child's mental and physical growth. Read more about the health effects of lead exposure. Read prevention tips from CDC's Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.

Read about prevention tips to reduce your and your family's exposure to environmental chemicals.

More Information

In addition to biomonitoring data on lead, the Tracking Network has information and data about childhood lead poisoning.


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