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Template:Infobox lead
File:Lead pipe Bath.jpg

Lead pipe in Roman baths

Lead (pronounced /ˈlɛd/) is a main group element with a symbol Pb (Latin: plumbum ). Lead has the atomic number 82. Lead is a soft, malleable poor metal, also considered to be one of the heavy metals. Lead has a bluish-white color when freshly cut, but tarnishes to a dull grayish color when exposed to air. It has a shiny chrome-silver luster when melted into a liquid.

Lead is used in building construction, lead-acid batteries, bullets and shot, weights, and is part of solder, pewter, fusible alloys and radiation shields. Lead has the highest atomic number of all stable elements, although the next element, bismuth, has a half-life so long (longer than the estimated age of the universe) it can be considered stable. Like mercury, another heavy metal, lead is a potent neurotoxin that accumulates in soft tissues and bone over time.


Lead has a dull luster and is a dense, ductile, very soft, highly malleable, bluish-white metal that has poor electrical conductivity. This true metal is highly resistant to corrosion, and because of this property, it is used to contain corrosive liquids (e.g., sulfuric acid). Because lead is very malleable and resistant to corrosion it is extensively used in building construction, e.g., external coverings of roofing joints. Lead can be toughened by adding a small amount of antimony or other metals to it. It is a common misconception that lead has a zero Thomson effect. All lead, except 204Pb, is the end product of a complex radioactive decay (see isotopes of lead below). Lead is also poisonous.


Metallic lead does occur in nature, but it is rare. Lead is usually found in ore with zinc, silver and (most abundantly) copper, and is extracted together with these metals. The main lead mineral is galena (PbS), which contains 86.6% lead. Other common varieties are cerussite (PbCO3) and anglesite (PbSO4).

Health effects

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Lead is a poisonous metal that can damage nervous connections (especially in young children) and cause blood and brain disorders. Because of its low reactivity and solubility, lead poisoning usually only occurs in cases when the lead is dispersed, like when sanding lead based paint, or long term exposure in the case of pewter tableware. Long term exposure to lead or its salts (especially soluble salts or the strong oxidant PbO2) can cause nephropathy, and colic-like abdominal pains. The concern about lead's role in cognitive deficits in children has brought about widespread reduction in its use (lead exposure has been linked to schizophrenia[How to reference and link to summary or text]). Most cases of adult elevated blood lead levels are workplace-related.[1] High blood levels are associated with delayed puberty in girls.[2]

Older houses may still contain substantial amounts of lead paint. White lead paint has been withdrawn from sale in industrialized countries, but the yellow lead chromate is still in use; for example, Holland Colours Holcolan Yellow. Old paint should not be stripped by sanding, as this produces inhalable dust.

Lead salts used in pottery glazes have on occasion caused poisoning, when acid drinks, such as fruit juices, have leached lead ions out of the glaze.[3] It has been suggested that what was known as "Devon colic" arose from the use of lead-lined presses to extract apple juice in the manufacture of cider. Lead is considered to be particularly harmful for women's ability to reproduce. For that reason, many universities do not hand out lead-containing samples to women for instructional laboratory analyses.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Lead(II) acetate (also known as sugar of lead) was used by the Roman Empire as a sweetener for wine, and some consider this to be the cause of the dementia that affected many of the Roman Emperors.[4]

Lead as a soil contaminant is a widespread issue, since lead is present in natural deposits and may also enter soil through (leaded) gasoline leaks from underground storage tanks or through a wastestream of lead paint or lead grindings from certain industrial operations.

Lead can also be found listed as a criteria pollutant in the United States Clean Air Act section 108. Lead that is emitted into the atmosphere can be inhaled, or it can be ingested after it settles out of the air. It is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream and is believed to have adverse effects on the central nervous system, the cardiovascular system, kidneys, and the immune system.[5]

Biochemistry of lead poisoning

In the human body, lead inhibits porphobilinogen synthase and ferrochelatase, preventing both porphobilinogen formation and the incorporation of iron into protoporphyrin IX, the final step in heme synthesis. This causes ineffective heme synthesis and subsequent microcytic anemia.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Occupational Exposure

It is widely used in the production of batteries, metal products (solder and pipes), ammunition and devices to shield X-rays leading to its exposure to the people working in these industries. Use of lead in gasoline, paints and ceramic products, caulking, and pipe solder has been dramatically reduced in recent years because of health concerns. Ingestion of contaminated food and drinking water is the most common source of lead exposure in humans. Exposure can also occur via inadvertent ingestion of contaminated soil/dust or lead-based paint.

Former applications

  • Lead pigments were used in lead paint for white as well as yellow, orange, and red. Most have been discontinued due of the dangers of lead poisoning. However, lead chromate is still in industrial use. Lead carbonate (white) is the traditional pigment for the priming medium for oil painting, but it has been largely displaced by the zinc and titanium oxide pigments. It was also quickly replaced in water-based painting mediums.
  • Lead carbonate white was used by the Japanese geisha and in the West for face-whitening make-up, which caused ill-health in the wearer.
  • Lead was the hot metal used in hot metal typesetting.
  • Lead was used for plumbing in Ancient Rome.
  • Lead was used as a preservative for food and drink in Ancient Rome.
  • Lead was used for joining cast iron water pipes and used as a material for small diameter water pipes until the early 1970s.
  • Tetraethyl lead was used in leaded fuels to reduce engine knocking; however, this is no longer common practice in the Western world due to its incompatibility with catalytic converters.
    • The EPA banned the use of lead gasoline for highway transportation, beginning January 1st, 1996.[6]
  • Lead has been used to make "clubs" or bats more lethal by melting it into a hole drilled into the top
  • Lead was used to make bullets for slings.
  • Lead was used as a component of toys. Due to toy safety regulations, this use has been stopped in the United States.
  • Lead was used in car body filler, which was used in many custom cars in the 1940s–60s. Hence the term Leadsled.
  • Lead is a superconductor at 7.2 K and IBM tried to make a Josephson effect computer out of lead-alloy.[7]
  • Lead was also used in pesticides before the 1950s, when fruit orchards were treated (ATSDR).

Contrary to popular belief, pencil "leads" have never been made from lead. The term comes from the Roman stylus, called the penicillus, which was made of lead.[8] When the pencil originated as a wrapped graphite writing tool, the particular type of graphite being used was named plumbago (lit. "act for lead"; "lead mockup").

See also

  • Adult Blood Lead Epidemiology and Surveillance


  1. NIOSH ABLES. United States National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. URL accessed on 2007-10-04.
  2. Endocrine Disruptors and Abnormalities of Pubertal Development, Schoeters G, et al. Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology, 102, 168–175, 2008
  3. Government report on lead poisoning from ceramic glazes Government report on lead poisoning from ceramic glazes. URL accessed on 2008-04-24.
  4. The Pernicious Allure of Lead. New York Times.
  6. Banning of Leaded Gasoline for Highway Use.
  7. Henkels, W. H.; Geppert, L. M.; Kadlec, J.; Epperlein, P. W.; Beha, H. (1985). Josephson 4 K-bit cache memory design for a prototype signal processor.. Harvard University.
  8. A history of pencils.

Further reading

External links

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