Canadian Environmental Health Atlas

Understanding Our Environment is Key to Promoting Health and Preventing Disease

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The Lingering Legacy of Lead
Lead is an element found in the earth’s crust that can be released into the environment through human activities such as burning fossil fuels, mining, and manufacturing. Lead has historically been used for a variety of purposes because of its malleable nature and resistance to corrosion. Production of lead began 5,000 years ago, and increased dramatically during the industrial revolution, leading to extensive contamination of the earth’s surface (Figure 1).1 Lead is currently used in the production of batteries, metal products, and devices to shield X-rays. The use of lead in paint, gasoline, and pipe solder has largely been banned in the industrialized world because of its toxicity, but its use in paint and gasoline continues in some industrializing countries.

Prevention: Too Little, Too Late
Over 100 years ago, A.J. Turner, (Figure 2) an Australian pediatrician, and John Lockhart Gibson, an Australian ophthalmologist, reported on an epidemic of childhood lead poisoning. After failing to prevent new cases by educating mothers, Turner called for “legislative interference” and aptly stated, “Prevention is easy. Paint containing lead should never be employed ... where children, especially young children, are accustomed to play.” Yet, children around the world continue to be exposed to lead-based paints and other sources of lead. While efforts to regulate and control lead sources have occurred in many industrialized countries, lead is still ubiquitous. Lead-based products, including leaded gasoline and paint, continue to be used in some industrializing countries (Figure 3).2 New research suggests that for children there may be no safe threshold level for lead exposure—a finding that indicates much more needs to be done.


  • 1. Settle DM, Patterson CC. Lead in albacore: guide to lead pollution in Americans. Science. 1980;207(4436):1167-76.
  • 2. Clark CS, Bornschein R, Succop P, Roda S, and Peace B. Urban Lead Exposures of Children in Cincinnati, Ohio. Chem. Speciation Bioavailability. 1991;3(3/4):163–171.