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Effects of Lead in Drinking Water

Author: Nigel Green

Published: 2010-11-03 - (Updated: 2018-11-15)


Lead is just one of the many different chemicals which contaminate our public water supply.

Main Digest

Lead is just one of the many different chemicals which contaminate our public water supply but it may be one of the most harmful and is certainly one of the most common. Lead is a main-group element with symbol Pb and is counted as one of the heavy metals. Lead has a bluish color when freshly cut, but soon dulls to a grayish color when exposed to air.

Health Effects Lead Can Have on Our Body

Lead's symbol Pb comes from the Latin name plumbum. The English words "plumbing", "plumber", "plumb" are taken from this Latin root.

Lead is used in building construction, batteries, solder, pewter's and old water pipes.

Lead has been commonly used for thousands of years because of its availability, ease to extract and ease to work with. It is a highly malleable metal as well as easy to smelt from ore.

Lead was used in paint as pigment for colors such as white, orange, yellow and red.

Lead was used for joining cast iron water pipes and used as a material for small diameter water pipes until the early 1970s.

Most uses of lead have been discontinued due of the dangers of lead poisoning.

Tetraethyl lead was used in petrol to reduce engine knocking but this has been stopped in efforts to reduce toxic pollution that has adverse effects on humans and the environment.

Lead soil contamination is a widespread problem, lead is present in the ground naturally and also enters through leaks from underground storage tanks or waste of lead paint or from certain industrial operations.

Lead poisoning typically results from ingestion of food or water contaminated with lead. 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.

Lead is a highly potent neurotoxin that accumulates in soft tissues and the bones.

It can damage the nervous system, especially in young children, and cause brain disorders. The effects of lead are the same whether it enters the body through breathing or swallowing. Lead can affect almost every organ in the body although it mainly targets the nervous system.

Long-term exposure of adults can result in decreased functions of the nervous system, weakness in fingers, wrists, or ankles, increases in blood pressure, particularly in middle-aged and older people and can cause anaemia.

Exposure to high levels of lead can damage the brain and kidneys in and even lead to death.

High level exposures of lead have shown to reduce fertility and sperm count in males and in pregnant women, high levels of exposure may cause miscarriage. Lead has been shown many times to permanently reduce the cognitive capacity of children at extremely low levels of exposure. There appears to be no detectable lower limit below which lead has no effect on cognition. Lead is also considered to be particularly harmful for women's ability to reproduce.

Although the widespread use of lead has been reduced due to fears of its toxic nature it is still used in some industrial settings and many old water pipes and fittings still contain lead which then gets into the public water supply. When consumed over a length of time this can have cumulative adverse effects and can cause serious health problems, especially in children.

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