Lead and your health

Lead and your health

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What is lead?

Lead is a naturally-occurring metal commonly used in manufacturing and in some hobbies. It is soft and corrosion-resistant.

What is lead exposure?

Lead gets in your body when you swallow or breathe in tiny lead particles.

How is a person exposed to lead?

You can be exposed to lead from soil, dust, drinking water, hobbies and work.

Soil may contain lead from traffic fumes (from when petrol contained lead), flaking lead-based paints or from nearby mines. Lead can stay in soil for many years.

Drinking water may also contain small amounts of lead from old pipes, solder and fittings. In Australia, lead exposure from drinking water rarely increases blood lead levels or causes symptoms.

Lead may be in many common household items. These include:

  • lead-based paint
  • lead-contaminated soil
  • lead-contaminated household dust
  • lead crystal
  • glazed pottery
  • pewter
  • lead flashing for roofing materials
  • old painted toys
  • imported jewellery and cosmetics
  • fishing sinkers
  • curtain weights
  • solder
  • lead-shot bullets
  • lead-light windows.

Who is at risk from lead exposure?

Lead can be harmful to the health of people of all ages. However, the risk is greatest for infants, young children and pregnant women and their unborn babies, and new mothers and their breastfeeding babies.

What are the symptoms of elevated blood lead levels?

Symptoms of elevated blood lead levels can vary between individuals and may be mild or severe. Some people may not have any symptoms at all.

Significantly elevated blood lead levels may cause:

  • muscle pain
  • fatigue
  • abdominal pains
  • headache
  • nausea and vomiting
  • seizures
  • coma.

Lesser elevations of blood lead levels may cause:

  • irritability
  • lack of energy
  • learning disabilities
  • behavioural problems
  • poor school performance
  • poor coordination
  • impaired growth.

Many of these symptoms are caused by other conditions, so it is important to see a doctor if you are concerned.

What should you do if you are concerned?

Your doctor can order a test to measure the level of lead in your blood.

If your blood level is elevated your doctor can provide you with advice. Public Health Services will contact you to help find out how you’ve been exposed and offer advice on how to reduce the exposure.

If you are concerned about lead exposure in your house or environment you can contact an environmental health officer from your council to discuss possible sources and organise testing of soil or water samples.

How can you reduce your exposure?

Reducing your exposure to lead depends on where it is coming from.  An environmental health officer will help.

If you know your garden soil is contaminated with lead, follow these steps to reduce your exposure:

  • wash your hands with soap and running water after contact with soil, especially before eating – help and encourage children to do this
  • keep children’s toys clean. Wipe dust off and wash them regularly
  • cover bare soil with grass, mulch or hard surfacing such as pavers or decking
  • wash leafy vegetables from your garden before cooking and eating them and peel root vegetables
  • if you need to bring in fresh soil, plant home-grown produce in raised beds, at least 30 cm deep
  • reduce the build-up of dust in your house. Wet-wipe surfaces and mop floors to remove dust. Be mindful that dusting, sweeping and vacuuming will lift the dust into the air, which will then resettle again
  • brush pets outside and ensure children wash their hands after patting them.

Reducing exposure to lead from drinking water:

  • flush cold water taps by running them for 30 seconds first thing in the morning, or for 2 to 3 minutes if the house has been vacant
  • use water from cold water taps only for drinking, food preparation and cooking
  • do not use water from the hot tap to boil in your kettle or for food preparation
  • flush public drinking water fountains for 30 seconds before using them
  • do not use old army disposal drinking flasks or other old containers for drinking water as they may have been soldered with a lead-based solder
  • use plumbing products that are WaterMark certified
  • if you source your household water from a rainwater tank, do not collect rainwater from roofs containing lead flashing or painted with pre 1980 paint.

Reducing exposure to lead from older houses with lead-based paint:

  • when re-decorating or restoring your home, take precautions to minimise exposure to old paint that may contain lead. Use appropriate personal protective equipment when sanding and grinding surfaces. Refer to Lead Alert: The six-step guide to painting your home
  • wash your hands regularly when renovating
  • pregnant or breastfeeding women and young children should not be present during home renovations.

Lead in your workplace

Workplaces involving the use of lead compounds can be a source of lead exposure. Refer to WorkSafe Tasmania for further information, 1300 366 322.

More information

Call Public Health Services on 1800 671 738 or email public.health@health.tas.gov.au for health advice on lead issues in and around the home.