Health Problems Caused by Lead

It does not matter if a person breathes-in, swallows, or absorbs lead particles, the health effects are the same; however, the body absorbs higher levels of lead when it is breathed-in.

Within our bodies, lead is absorbed and stored in our bones, blood, and tissues. It does not stay there permanently, rather it is stored there as a source of continual internal exposure. 1 As we age, our bones demineralize and the internal exposures may increase as a result of larger releases of lead from the bone tissue. There is concern that lead may mobilize from the bone among women undergoing menopause.2 Post-menopausal women have been found to have higher blood lead levels than pre-menopausal women. 3

Health effects from short-term overexposure to lead

Lead poisoning can happen if a person is exposed to very high levels of lead over a short period of time. When this happens, a person may feel:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipated
  • Tired
  • Headachy
  • Irritable
  • Loss of appetite
  • Memory loss
  • Pain or tingling in the hands and/or feet
  • Weak

Because these symptoms may occur slowly or may be caused by other things, lead poisoning can be easily overlooked. Exposure to high levels of lead may cause anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage. Very high lead exposure can cause death.

Lead can cross the placental barrier, which means pregnant women who are exposed to lead also expose their unborn child. Lead can damage a developing baby’s nervous system. Even low-level lead exposures in developing babies have been found to affect behavior and intelligence. Lead exposure can cause miscarriage, stillbirths, and infertility (in both men and women).

Generally, lead affects children more than it does adults. Children tend to show signs of severe lead toxicity at lower levels than adults. Lead poisoning has occurred in children whose parent(s) accidentally brought home lead dust on their clothing. Neurological effects and intellectual disability have also occurred in children whose parent(s) may have job-related lead exposure.4

Health effects from prolonged exposure to lead

A person who is exposed to lead over time may feel:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipated
  • Depressed
  • Distracted
  • Forgetful
  • Irritable
  • Nauseous/Sick

People with prolonged exposure to lead may also be at risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, and reduced fertility.

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have determined that lead is probably cancer-causing in humans. 5


1Gulson BL, Mahaffey KR, Mizon KJ, Korsch MJ, Cameron MA, Vimpani G. 1995. Contribution of tissue lead to blood lead in adult female subjects based on stable lead isotope methods. [ http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7769364external icon] J Lab Clin Med 125:703–712.

2Weyerman M, Brenner H. [1998]. Factors affecting bone demineralization and blood lead levels of postmenopausal women. A population based study from Germany. [ http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0013935197937804external icon] Environ Res 76:19–25.

3Potula V, Kaye W. [2006]. The Impact of Menopause and Lifestyle Factors on Blood and Bone Lead Levels Among Female Former Smelter Workers: The Bunker Hill Study. [ http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16470548external icon] American Journal of Industrial Medicine. 49:143–152.

4 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Report to Congress on Workers’ Home Contamination Study Conducted Under The Workers’ Family Protection Act (29 U.S.C. 671a) DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 95-123 [ https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/95-123/pdfs/95-123.pdfpdf icon (PDF 10.2 MB, 308 pages)] (1995)

5U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [2007] Toxicological profile for Lead (update) [ http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp13.pdfpdf icon (PDF 4901KB, 582 pages)] Public Health Service Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Page last reviewed: December 8, 2021