Countries should take action to prevent exposure to lead Lead

Lead exposure – a major
public health concern
Countries should take action to prevent exposure to lead
Lead exposure causes a significant
burden of disease
Lead exposure is estimated to account for 143 000 deaths
per year and 0.6% of the global burden of disease (2004
data). The highest burden is in developing regions: 98% of
adults and 99% of children affected by exposure to lead live
in low- and middle-income countries.1
Lead causes multi-system health
Lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body
systems, including the neurological, haematological,
gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and renal systems.
Evidence suggests that there is, in fact, no threshold
blood lead concentration for the key adverse effects of
There are many sources of
exposure to lead
Infants, young children and pregnant women are most
susceptible to the toxic effects of lead.
Lead is found at low levels naturally in the ear th’s crust,
however, the widespread occurrence of lead in the
environment is largely the resu lt of human activity.
Impor tant sources of environmental contamination
include mining, smelting, refining and infor mal recycling
of lead; use of leaded petrol (gasoline); production of
lead-acid batteries and paints; jewellery making,
soldering, ceramics and leaded glass manufacture in
for mal and cottage (home-based) industries. Other
sources of exposure include the use of lead in
traditional medicines and cosmetics, use in water
supply pipes and solder, and use in ceramic glazes for
food vessels.
Lead exposure causes lasting harm
to children
Member States can take action to
reduce lead exposure
Lead poisoning can cause anorexia, vomiting and
abdominal pain, hepatic and renal damage, anaemia,
hypertension, and neurological effects including irritability,
drowsiness and, in severe poisoning, coma, convulsions
and death. Lead exposure can also have reproductive
effects, causing miscarriage, stillbir th, premature birth and
low birth weight, as well as reduced sperm count and sperm
Public Health and Environment
(IQ) can occur from blood lead levels as low as 5 μg/dL
(50 μg/L), and the effects gradually increase with
increasing levels of lead in the blood. Lead exposure
has also been linked epidemiologically to attention
deficit disorder and aggression.2
Young 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. Subtle effects on intelligence quotient
Recent reductions in the use of lead in petrol (gasoline),
plumbing and solder have resulted in substantial
reductions in lead blood levels. 3 However, significant
The WHO Department of Public Health and Environment (PHE) works to promote a healthier environment, intensify
primary prevention and influence public policies in all sectors in order to address the root causes of environmental
threats to health.
sources of exposure to lead still remain, par ticularly in
developing countries. Further effor ts are required to
continue to reduce the use and release of lead and to
reduce environmental and occupational exposures,
particularly for children and women of child-bearing age.
significant sources of lead exposure
Paints containing added lead compounds are still widely
available despite what is known about the serious public
health risks. Unless this unnecessary practice is
eliminated, exposures will continue to increase, particularly
as the use of decorative and other paints is associated with
economic growth.
Jointly with the United Nations Environment Programme
(UNEP), WHO has established the Global Alliance for the
Elimination of Lead in paint
WHO is developing guidance for
Member States
WHO is developing evidence-based guidelines on
measures to prevent exposure to lead and on the
treatment of lead poisoning. They will include
recommendations on practical and policy measures
aimed at preventing or reducing exposure to lead. They
will also include guidance on the use of chelation as well
as other treatments in patients with lead toxicity. A multiregional expert group is assisting WHO with this work.
Exposure to lead: a major public health concern. Short information document for policy makers
Brief guide to analytical methods for the measurement of lead in blood
Brief guide to analytical methods for the measurement of lead in paint
Public Health and Environment
Guidelines, tools and materials
1. WHO (2009) Global health risks: Mortality and burden of disease attributable to selected major risks.
(http://w w
2. WHO (2011) Safety evaluation of certain food additives and contaminants in food, No.64
(http://w hqlibdoc.w
3. Few trell L et al (2003). Lead: Assessing the environmental burden of disease at national and local levels.;
http://w w ing_ehimpacts/publications/en/leadebd2.pdf).
WHO contact
Chemical Safety
Department of Public Health and Environment,
World Health Organization
20, avenue Appia, CH-1211 Geneva 27