Lead


What is lead?

Lead is a metal that occurs naturally in the environment and also has many industrial uses. Lead was previously used extensively in the plumbing industry and appeared in a wide variety of consumer products such as paint, gasoline, lead crystal, solder in food cans and even some glazes used for china pottery and dinnerware.

The use of lead in the past has led to it being widespread in the environment. However, since about the 1980s, the use of lead in consumer products has steadily decreased, significantly reducing the public's exposure to lead in Canada.


How might I be exposed to lead?

Exposure to lead can come from drinking water, soil, food, household dust, and air (see Table 1). For the general population in Canada, the main exposure routes are through the mouth (ingestion, or swallowing) or the lungs (inhalation). The growing fetus may also be exposed to lead from the mother via the placenta. Children are at greater risk of swallowing lead than adults due to their frequent hand-to-mouth activity and tendency to mouth or chew objects with which they come into contact (especially non-food products such as paint chips, furniture or toys).


What are the health effects of lead?

Exposure to lead is of most concern for infants and young children because it can affect brain and nervous system development. Lead can also cause other effects in adults and children. The risk of effects increases with increasing exposure. More information about the health effects of lead is available from Health Canada (see Resources below).


Is lead found in the soil in older, urban neighbourhoods?

Lead is commonly found in urban environments due to its earlier uses. For example, paint manufactured before 1980 can still release particles of lead into the air, household dust, and soil when chipped, peeled or sanded.

Lead levels in soil may be higher in residential areas adjacent to current or historic commercial or industrial operations. In older residential areas lead levels in surface soil may be increased due to the past use of leaded gasoline in vehicles nearby and historical use of leaded paint on buildings and fences. Because lead does not break down, soil can represent a source of exposure even in the absence of current use of lead.

Table 1 - Sources of Lead Exposure

Drinking Water

Naturally occurring lead in water supplies is very low but elevated levels can come from lead in solder, service connections, or pipes in the home if the plumbing was installed before 1990. In such circumstances, lead is more likely to be found in hot water from the tap, especially if the water has been standing in the pipes for a number of hours.

SoilLead levels in soils generally reflect soil conditions, geology and the historic uses of lead. For example, the use of lead in products such as gasoline, house paint, and pesticides can contribute to the amount of lead in soil, especially in older urban neighbourhoods.
FoodTraces of lead are found in almost all foods, as airborne lead falls onto crops or soil. Lead-glazed pottery, or lead in crystal glassware and ceramics can leach into food. Infants can also absorb lead from their mothers' bodies through breast milk, or from formula made with tap water that contains lead.
DustLead in outdoor dust and soil can cling to skin, hair, shoes, clothing and vehicles, and can be carried indoors by adults, children and pets. Lead dust can also be generated within older homes from lead-based paints or lead solder.

Air

Lead is released with industrial emissions, smelters and refineries.

OtherExamples: Some children's costume jewellery, lead hobby solder, lead shot shells or fishing weights, lead-acid batteries, lead-painted wood.

Is Region of Waterloo municipal drinking water tested for lead?

Region of Waterloo and Municipal partners test for lead in the distribution systems each year.

The Ministry of Environment's standard for lead in drinking water is ten micrograms per litre. All water distributed in the Regional Municipality of Waterloo system must meet high levels of quality legislated by the Ontario Ministry of Environment, including the standard for lead.

Lead in Drinking Water Fact Sheet

Lead in Drinking Water in Schools and Day Nurseries Fact Sheet


What can I do to reduce my family's exposure to lead?

  • Use washable door mats and remove footwear at the door to prevent the tracking of soil into the house 
  • Dust or brush off pets before they come inside and wash your hands afterwards 
  • Encourage children to play on grassed areas instead of bare soil and wash children's feet after they play barefoot outdoors
  • Make sure children and adults wash their hands before meals, after gardening and before going to bed 
  • Discourage your children from eating dirt and other hand-to-mouth activity that could increase their exposure to lead 
  • See the Urban Gardening Factsheet (link below) to learn how to garden safely 
  • Regularly clean carpets and upholstery using a vacuum with a HEPA filter 
  • Use a damp mop or rag to prevent dust from becoming airborne 
  • Wash fruits and vegetables 
  • Wash children's toys and other articles that may have come in contact with soil or dust 
  • Contact your local municipality to check if you have lead service lines or contact a plumber to determine if you have lead pipes or solder in your home. If you do, have your drinking water tested for lead and consider replacing lead-containing materials.

Other Resources

Health Canada's Lead Webpage

Region of Waterloo Public Health Urban Gardening Factsheet

Lead in Drinking Water Fact Sheet

Lead in Drinking Water in Day Nurseries Fact Sheet


For more information or if you have any specific concerns you would like to discuss with Public Health, please call 519-575-4400, ext. 5147.

*Development of this information was informed by Health Canada, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation and Toronto Public Health*

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