What is lead?

Lead is a heavy, soft bluish-grey metal that occurs naturally in the earth's crust. Lead is used in the manufacture of many consumer products.

What are the health risks of exposure to lead?

Human exposure to lead has declined significantly in the last 30 years due to the removal of lead in gasoline, lead in paint and other products. However, recent information indicates that lead can have effects on health at lower levels of exposure than were previously known.

Exposure to lead can cause a wide range of health effects. The effects of lead build up over time. The higher and longer the exposure to lead, the greater the effect on health. Lead can be stored in bone and can be released in times of bone turn over (ex: pregnancy, menopause, injury).

Chronic lead exposure may not produce obvious symptoms until levels in the body are very high. Lead can affect digestive and kidney function, harm blood production and increase blood pressure. Additionally, high lead exposure can cause heart disease, depression, reduced fertility, fatigue, nerve damage, memory loss and can affect concentration and sleep.

Large exposures (ex: chewing, swallowing an object containing lead or breathing in lead fumes) can result in lead poisoning. In certain occupational groups, high exposures to lead have shown limited evidence for an increased risk of cancer. However, in the general population, blood lead levels have not been associated with cancer.

Who is at higher risk from lead exposure?

Everyone should minimize lead exposure as much as possible.

However, due to lead's effect on the developing brain, children and unborn children are more sensitive to lead exposure. Lead exposure, even at low levels, has been associated with developmental delays of childhood behaviours, a decrease in language skills, reduced intellectual abilities and delayed puberty.  The higher the exposure to lead the greater the effect. Population studies of low levels of lead exposure in children showed associations with slightly reduced intelligence quotient (IQ) scores and adverse effects on behaviour compared to children who had less exposure to lead. See Health Canada's Final Human Health State of the Science Report on Lead 2013 for further information.

Women who may become pregnant are advised to limit their lead exposure to protect their unborn child. Since lead can be stored in bones and bone metabolism is increased in pregnancy and lactation, stored bone lead is released into the mother's blood. Once in the mother's blood, lead can move to the fetus and increase the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm birth, low birth weight, and harm brain development.

What are Common Lead Exposures and What Can You Do to Protect Yourself and Your Family?

Everyone is exposed to trace amounts of lead through air, soil, household dust, food, drinking water, and consumer products.

Traces of lead are found in almost all food. Airborne lead falls onto crops or soil and can be absorbed by plants. Cigarette smoke may also contain small amounts of lead. However, there are situations where the potential for exposure to lead can be higher, including in homes, community spaces and the workplace. Some consumer products may also contain lead and may result in increased exposure.

Home and Community

Lead is more common in older homes, where it could be in house paint, plumbing, or soil around the house. Due to the past use of lead in gasoline, areas near high traffic roadways can have increased lead in soil, which can contribute to lead in yard soils or house dust. Some industries, such as lead smelters, can release airborne lead dust. Some small aircraft still use leaded fuel and can leave airborne lead dust in the areas below them.

Lead Paint

If your home was built before 1960, lead-based paint was probably used both inside and outside. For homes built between 1960 and 1990, small amounts of lead may be in some of the paint used.

Lead-based paint in your home can result in a high lead exposure, if it is chipping or flaking, or within the reach of children who might chew on it.

Disturbing old leaded paint during household renovations can cause the renovator or the household inhabitants to inhale or ingest lead dust. Lead exposure during renovations can be very high.

Testing paint for lead

If you think the paint in your home may contain lead, have it tested.

A certified inspector can measure paint lead levels in your home, or you can mail paint chip samples to a testing laboratory.

To find an inspector or laboratory in your area, contact the Standards Council of Canada or the Canadian Association for Laboratory Accreditation. Search online or check your local telephone directory for Laboratories - Analytical and Testing.

Be sure to contact the lab first, and follow all directions for gathering and sending the paint chips. If the lead-based paint is in good condition and is not on a surface that a child might chew, the risk is minimal. It's best to leave it alone, paint over it, or cover it with wallpaper, wallboard or paneling. If the lead-based paint is cracking, chipping, flaking or peeling, or if it is on a surface that a child might chew, action may need to be taken.

See Health Canada's fact sheet Lead-based Paint before starting any renovation project in an older home.

Drinking Water

Homes built before 1950 may have lead pipe service connections, which can increase lead in drinking water in the home. Lead solder in the pipes and lead fixtures may also contribute to lead in drinking water levels. Newer homes are much less likely to have problems with lead in drinking water. Lead service lines were largely phased out in the 1950s though they were still allowed under the National Plumbing Code until 1975. Manitoba banned the use of leaded solders in household plumbing around 1990. For more information on assessing your drinking water for lead see:

Soil and Gardening

The soil around homes built before 1990 and near old painted fences can be contaminated by traces of lead from the paint. The older the home the greater the risk.

Lead in soil is more common near industrial areas or areas of past industrial activity. Due to the past use of lead in gasoline, areas near high traffic roadways can have increased lead in soil, which can contribute to lead in yard soils or house dust. Lead dust settling on the ground in soil can be breathed in, swallowed, or tracked inside the home and can contribute to blood lead levels.

Studies indicate that exposure to soil with increased levels of lead may slightly increase blood lead levels. Effective measures to prevent this exposure have not been established. However, if you have concerns that areas of your yard may have increased lead in soil, these precautionary measures may prevent lead exposure:   

  • Cover bare soil in flower gardens and in lawns with inconsistent grass cover with new sod, mulch, rock or other suitable material.
  • Develop preferred play areas for children with new sod or other suitable surfaces.  Consider a raised sandbox or play area.
  • Encourage handwashing after playing/working outside and before eating
  • Regularly clean children's toys and pacifiers
  • Use doormats at house entrances and remove footwear at the door
  • Regularly mop floors and vacuum with a hepafilter vacuum.

Eating the soil should be avoided. This can happen when a child puts soil in their mouth while playing, or when someone eats garden vegetables without washing them first.

For information on the precautions for lead in soil and home gardening please see:

Consumer Products

Some traditional medicines, health products, spices (e.g. turmeric) or cosmetics may not meet Canadian safety standards for lead. Imported toys, utensils or food receptacles can also contain lead.

Lead can enter food, especially acidic food such as fruit juice, from lead-based glazes on glassware and ceramics. Canadian regulations limit the amount of lead that can leach from glazes on glass and ceramic products sold in Canada, if they are intended for use in preparing, serving or storing food. However, glazed ceramic or glass dishes bought in other countries may contain enough lead to be a hazard to health.

Candles that contain lead in their wicks may also release harmful levels of lead vapour when burned. Lead may be present in horizontal PVC (plastic) mini-blinds made in Asia or Mexico and pose a hazard to small children.

Lead pigments are added to glass to prevent radiation exposure from television and computer screens and can be found in many other products. Lead fumes can be released when waste oil, coloured newsprint, battery casings or wood covered with lead paint are burned.

Antiques, including old children's toys may contain lead or be made of lead. Ingestion of lead may occur if children / adults put objects in their mouths or use them to hold food or beverages.  Costume jewellery may contain lead and sucking, chewing on or swallowing this jewellery may be very harmful.

Lead crystal containers may be a source of lead exposure. Do not put food or beverages in lead crystal containers for any length of time. Do not serve pregnant women or children drinks in crystal glasses. Babies should never drink from lead crystal baby bottles. Sucking, chewing or swallowing an item made of lead may result in lead poisoning.

Hunting / Using Firearms / Eating game or fowl

Lead can be found in ammunition. Consuming game with lead fragments can create high lead exposure. If harvesting game shot with lead bullets/lead shot, remind your meat processer to avoid meat with excessive shot damage and to trim generous distances from wound channels.

High exposures to lead have been identified in individuals using firing ranges in Manitoba. If you shoot at a firing range, use appropriate precautions.

Working with lead – Hobbies or Occupational

Workers in certain industries may be exposed to high levels of lead. Lead dust may be breathed in or consumed.  For information on the common workplace lead exposures and the precautions please see:

Hobbies may be a source of lead exposure. Lead can be found in fishing weights and solder. Hobbies, such as stained glass work, pottery, refinishing old furniture, making fishing weights, may result in a lead exposure.

When working with lead products or in situations where lead exposure may occur, follow all safety precautions.

Women of childbearing age may wish to avoid occupations and hobbies with the potential for high lead exposure.  If lead solder is used in a hobby, such as stained glass-making, use a good quality-breathing mask, keep surfaces clean, change your clothes, wash after working, keep children and pregnant women out of the area and the lead products away from children.

Exposure within a family can occur if household members bring lead home on their clothes or in their vehicles. The use of lead in the home, in an occupation or hobby, such as making stained glass, may cause exposure to harmful lead vapours and dust in the household.

If you work with lead, take precautions to prevent bringing lead dust home.

Steps to take if you think that you have had an increased lead exposure

Everyone has some lead in their body. The goal is to prevent/minimize lead exposure, especially for children and unborn children.

Children and unborn children are more sensitive to lead exposure than adults. Even low levels of exposure can have negative effects on behaviour and intellectual development. The higher the lead exposure, the greater the effect.

Lead can build up in the body, little by little over time. Swallowing an object containing lead or breathing in lead dust or lead fumes can result in higher levels of exposure.

The treatment for lead poisoning is to stop the lead exposure and lead levels will reduce over time. If you are concerned about a high lead exposure, discuss it with your healthcare provider. A blood test can be done to check your lead levels. For people with very high blood lead levels, additional medical treatment may be necessary.

For more information

  • Contact your local public health office or
  • Contact Health Links–Info Santé : 788-8200 or 1-888-315-9257 (toll-free)

Public Health | Environmental Health
Manitoba Health

4th Floor - 300 Carlton St.
Winnipeg MB  R3B 3M9
Phone: 204-788-6735
Fax: 204-948-2040