Lead is a toxic metal whose widespread use has caused extensive environmental contamination and health problems in many parts of the world. It is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems, including the neurologic, hematologic, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and renal systems. Children are particularly vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of lead, and even relatively low levels of exposure can cause serious and in some cases irreversible neurological damage.
Lead exposure is estimated to account for 0.6% of the global burden of disease, with the highest burden in developing regions. Childhood lead exposure is estimated to contribute to about 600,000 new cases of children with intellectual disabilities every year. Recent reductions in the use of lead in petrol, paint, plumbing and solder have resulted in substantial reductions in blood lead levels. However, significant sources of exposure still remain, particularly in developing countries.
Further efforts are required to continue to reduce the use and releases of lead and to reduce environmental and occupational exposures, particularly for children and women of child-bearing age. Interventions include eliminating non-essential uses of lead such as lead in paint, ensuring the safe recycling of lead-containing waste, educating the public about the importance of safe disposal of lead-acid batteries and computers, and monitoring of blood lead levels in children, women of child-bearing age and workers.
Short information documents for decision makers
Tools for action
- Blood lead levels in children (pdf). European Environment and Health Information System. Fact sheet No. 4.5, May 2007
- Technical guidelines for the environmentally sound disposal of waste lead-acid batteries (pdf). Secretariat of the Basel Convention (2003)
Lead - Assessing the environmental burden of disease at national and local levels. Environmental Burden of Disease Series No. 2 (2003)
Norms and guidance values
- Guidelines for drinking-water quality (Fourth edition), Lead, chapter 12.1, pp383-384
- Air Quality Guidelines, Lead, pp149-153 (pdf)
Training for health care providers. Children's Health and Environment training package (2008)
- Childhood Lead Poisoning