Where Will it Lead (Pb) Us from Here: A Global Necessity or a Disaster Waiting to Happen?

February 26, 2016 - Michigan, MI, U.S. - Plumbers & Pipefitters U.A. Local 370 Business Manager Harold T. Harrington shows a corroded galvanized pipe from his house in Flint that is 80 years-old from the hot water line that went to his upstairs bathroom as a copper and lead pipe (right) rest on the table. Harrington said the cold water supply line in his home to the upstairs bathroom is galvanized as well and still connected that tested last week at 151 ppb for lead. Harrington's downstairs kitchen sink replaced with copper line tested at 32 ppb for lead explained that there could be a lead line from the main or the valve box from the road. (Credit Image: © Detroit Free Press via ZUMA Wire)

Co-Author

Geronimo Elias
Geronimo Elias

Co-Author

Geronimo Elias
Geronimo Elias

As one of the earliest metals discovered by humans, lead has been used in many ways throughout history. One example was in the world of plumbing, where Romans took advantage of this soft metal with a low melting temperature to make lead water pipes. In fact, the Latin word “Plumbum” is the origin of the elemental symbol for lead of Pb. The ancient Romans also used lead in the kitchen for pots and kettles, and even as a flavor for cooking. It is said that lead has a sweet overtone, and it was thus used to enhance “one-fifth of the 450 recipes in the Roman Apician Cookbook”.1 After the collapse of the Roman Empire, lead continued to be widely use during Medieval times, in items such as cisterns, coffins, gutters, and roofing. The metal was useful because its low melting temperature made it easier to extract, it did not corrode easily, and its malleability allowed it to be shaped into many different forms. According to the International Lead Association (ILA), today’s lead uses are focused on “power and protection” which includes things such as “radiation protection, underwater power and communication cables, vehicle batteries, electric vehicle batteries and in batteries operating emergency power supplies”.2

Figure 1. The production of lead given in total world production, as well as the leading producers of lead from 1806 to the present day. Graphic by: Gavin M. Mudd in the review “The world’s lead-zinc mineral resources: Scarcity, data, issues and opportunities”.

It is clear that the metal plays an important role in our economy, and affords necessary tools that are needed worldwide. China is the world’s top lead producer and a leading exporter, with peak production of 5.32 million metric tons in 2012 (see Figure 1).3

According to Future Market Insights, “the global market for lead has been witnessing noticeable growth on account of growing lead-acid battery consumption”, and, “growth of the building construction industry is anticipated to be one of the major factors driving the demand for lead over the next few years”.4 The uses of lead appear limitless, and likely will continue to expand with advancing technologies and increased demand. However, the positive economic impacts associated with new applications of lead in key technologies may be offset by the negative consequences of  significant adverse health impacts associated with lead.

Figure 2. An image showing what peeling paint looks like, which is a potential source of lead paint exposure | Courtesy of: Mike Mozart.

In the 21st century, lead is still widely used in many traditional forms including paints, children’s toys, and water pipes. These in-home applications can affect family health, especially for children. Lead paint was banned in the United States in 1978, but the presence of the paint in older homes still threatens millions around the country (see Figure 2). Children’s toys may also contain traces of lead paint; lead water pipes corrode and leach lead into water systems, causing another immediate health concern. The EPA states, “Lead pipes are more likely to be found in older cities and homes built before 1986”.5 Although uncommon in modern cities because of lead pipe bans enacted in the 1970s, pipes may be switched or interconnected to other older systems, or they may be corroded by improper treatment. Evidently, we all may be getting poisoned within our own homes and might not even know it. because of the potential presence of lead in paint, toys, and pipes among other household objects.

For decades, the ILA has contributed to this public health crisis, and the toll it has taken on the impoverished and/or black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) in the United States. Historically, the ILA has promoted lead for use in water piping as opposed to other metals. They have even published “practical advice on the installation and repair of lead pipes” and have worked to convince “plumbers’ organizations, local water authorities, architects, and federal officials” to use lead pipes.6 The ILA campaign is taking a toll on public health; a prominent example is the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where a series of cost-saving decisions resulted in a city of more than 95,000 people being exposed to high levels of lead. 

Figure 3. An image showing Flint, Michigan lead water pipes. Image from. Graphic by. Parul Dubey in the article “Flint’s lead pipes will be replaced under settlement in federal safe drinking water case.”

The Flint water crisis clearly demonstrates the reasons to remove lead pipes in water systems. When the city made the switch in 2014 from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River as a primary water source to save money, officials claimed that the water was safe to drink.7 City utilities, however, did not treat the water to prevent possible pipe corrosion that could happen from the new water source, and this evolved quickly into a public health crisis. Within weeks, thousands of people reported foul-smelling and tasting water in regular home appliances. The contamination escalated and tapwater in a number of homes was brown in color, indicating significant problems (see Figure 4). Despite this, the Michigan Depart of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) quickly assured people that the water was fine and even omitted water lead reports from the government which would remove any possible federal action. Pell and Schneyer from Reuters stated, “In the year after Flint switched to corrosive river water that leached lead from old pipes, 5 percent of the children screened there had high blood lead levels”.8

Figure 4. An image displaying where lead is found, where people are exposed to it, and how it effects the health of an individual who has been exposed to lead. Graphic by: University of Southern California Environmental Health Centers.

As the threat of living with lead is all too real, it is important to be aware of the possible adverse health effects. Exposure to lead may be acute or chronic, but it especially affects children, who are more vulnerable to toxicity. Acute exposure to lead happens from a sudden exposure, while chronic exposure develops over a period of time. Children exposed to lead may present with brain damage, learning and behavioral changes, and stunted growth. As grown ups, presented health effects may then include: headaches, memory loss, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and joint pain (see Figure 3).

Ms. Tamara Rubin, of the Lead Safe America Foundation, is an advocate for reducing childhood lead poisoning, and educates others with a documentary titled, “MisLEAD: America’s Secret Epidemic”.9 Ms. Rubin’s efforts to prevent childhood lead exposure started in the home she lived in with her own children. Two of Ms. Rubin’s sons were poisoned by lead when a painting contractor failed to use lead-safe work practices when working on the exterior of her family’s historic home. From there she learned as much as she could about lead poisoning and started the Lead Safe America Foundation to raise awareness about the danger of childhood lead poisoning.10 The issue of childhood lead poisoning is a serious health crisis, with potentially millions exposed worldwide to lead in their own homes. With lead present in older (pre-1986) in paints and in water lines, it must be taken into consideration that those living in older cities and homes are more susceptible to exposure. The socioeconomic implications of these exposure paths are that people of color and people in poverty (both of which may often go hand-in-hand) may be more exposed by living in older lead-filled homes.

The 95,000+ people in Flint, a majority-black city with poverty rates approaching 40 percent, would later see officials from the MDEQ and other state agencies be criminally charged.11 The Flint water crisis has continued for more than five years, and identification and replacement of lead-containing water supply continues slowly. On August 13, 2020 the mayor of Flint announced that 91% of household pipe inspections were completed. The replacement of lead pipes with copper pipes has been performed in thousands of homes and water lines, with a final completion deadline set for November 30th, 2020.12 The exposure of thousands of people through home water lines encourages us to ask if lead is a necessary resource, or a disaster waiting to happen. However, addressing a crisis Flint, Michigan does not mean that the crisis as a whole is over. Many homes all across the nation are still using lead pipes to carry water throughout their homes even after 30 years of the ban of lead piping.13

Lead is a problem backed by an industry that continues to promote it. While the metal is clearly recognized as a toxic risk, the concern with poisoning is something ILA would rather try to work around. An ILA report titled, Health Issues for Lead Workers and the General Population, discusses health issues related to the use of lead. At best, the acknowledgement by ILA of health issues such as impairment of the central nervous system, and kidney and heart damage, while continuing to support the use of lead, sends an inconsistent message with respect to the potential threat to public health.14

However, many people are aware of the problems that this imposes and are trying to help. As an advocate for reducing the exposure of children to lead, Tamara Rubin says there is only one culprit to people being lead poisoned and it is the lead industry itself.15 The Lead Safe America Foundation, has three main goals: emergency intervention and support for children who have been poisoned as the result of acute or chronic exposure; outreach, intervention and education to prevent childhood lead poisoning; and parent-advocate support. There are many efforts alongside the Lead Safe America Foundation that are focused on the use of lead in our everyday environment. These groups are bringing awareness to the dangers of lead in many ways. National Lead Poisoning Prevention week (October 25-31 this year) is dedicated specifically to raising awareness of lead poisoning.16 By engaging with the Lead Safe America Foundation and taking part in events such as National Lead Poisoning Prevention week, the problem of environmental lead exposure can be more widely recognized. With continued efforts to educate about the risks associated with lead, the incidences of lead poisoning will perhaps begin to diminish.

Lead is a useful metal, but at the same time is toxic to human health and should not be used in such close proximity to our families. Removal of lead from our environment, however, is not likely to be easy or inexpensive – Flint, Michigan fought for 6 years to evaluate and replace the lines that carried water to their homes. The problem with lead in Flint may nearing its end, but the public health crisis of lead may just very well be beginning.

  1. Lewis, J. EPA Web Archives (US) (EPA). Lead Poisoning: A Historical Perspective. 1985 (accessed 2020 Nov 17). 1 p. Available from: https://archive.epa.gov/epa/aboutepa/lead-poisoning-historical-perspective.html.
  2. International Lead Association. History of Lead. 2020 (accessed 2020 Oct 27). https://www.ila-lead.org/lead-facts/history-of-lead.
  3. Mudd, G. Annual Lead Production (Mt Pb) (graph). Clayton, Australia: Ore Geology Reviews. 2016 (accessed 2020 Oct 10). http://www.thesustainabilitysociety.org.nz/conference/2010/papers/Mudd.pdf.
  4. Future Market Insights. Market Overview. Lead Market. 2020 (accessed 2020 Nov 6). https://www.futuremarketinsights.com/reports/global-lead-market.
  5. Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, United States Environmental Protection Agency (US) (EPA). Learn about lead. Lead. 2013 (accessed 2020 Oct 10). 1 p. Available from: https://www.epa.gov/lead/learn-about-lead#main-content.
  6. Rabin, R. The lead industry and lead water pipes “A Modest Campaign”. American journal of public health. 2008 (accessed 2020 Oct 27); 1584-92. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2509614/.
  7. Ruckart, P. et al. The Flint Water Crisis: A Coordinated Public Health Emergency Response and Recovery Initiative. Journal Public Health Management and Practice. Jan/Feb 2019 (accessed 2020 Nov 17). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6309965/.
  8. Schneyer J, Pell MB. Thousands of U.S. Areas Afflicted with Lead Poisoning beyond Flint’s. 2016 Dec 19 (accessed 2020 Oct 10). https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/thousands-of-u-s-areas-afflicted-with-lead-poisoning-beyond-flints/
  9. Zalokar, S. Lead poisoning has one culprit, advocate says: the lead industry. 2016 Apr 9 (accessed 2020 Oct 27). https://www.streetroots.org/news/2016/04/09/lead-poisoning-has-one-culprit-advocate-says-lead-industry
  10. MacEachern D. Lead Safe America founder discusses childhood lead poisoning. Momscleanairforce.org. 2016 Apr 4 (accessed 2020 Nov 11). https://www.momscleanairforce.org/interview-tamara-rubin/
  11. Merrit, K. Lead-Laced Water in Flint: A Step-By-Step Look At The Makings Of A Crisis. 2016 Apr 20 (accessed 2020 Oct 27). https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/04/20/465545378/lead-laced-water-in-flint-a-step-by-step-look-at-the-makings-of-a-crisis.
  12. Callan, W. Flint mayor announces new deadline to replace lead water service lines. 2020 Aug 13 (accessed 2020 Oct 27). https://www.michiganradio.org/post/flint-mayor-announces-new-deadline-replace-lead-water-service-lines.
  13. Rosenthal, L and Craft, W. Buried Lead. 2020 May 4 (accessed 2020 Oct 27). https://www.apmreports.org/story/2020/05/04/epa-lead-pipes-drinking-water#:~:text=Across%20the%20country%2C%20lead%20pipes,tens%20of%20millions%20of%20people
  14. International Lead Association. Health Issues for Lead Workers and the General Population. 2020 (accessed 2020 Nov 6). https://www.ila-lead.org/UserFiles/File/Health%20Issues%20for%20Lead%20Workers%20and%20the%20General%20Population.pdf
  15. Zalokar, S. Lead poisoning has one culprit, advocate says: the lead industry. 2016 Apr 9 (accessed 2020 Oct 27). https://www.streetroots.org/news/2016/04/09/lead-poisoning-has-one-culprit-advocate-says-lead-industry
  16. National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US) (NIH). National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention. 2020 (accessed 2020 Nov 6). 1 p. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/national-lead-poisoning-prevention-week.html

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6 Responses

  1. Midori,

    I thought your article was really a good informational article. You not only showed examples of lead, but you also provided strong facts and a sensible argument to why lead is bad, not just for kids, but also adults. You also showed how it is more used in black poor neighbor hoods and cities. I think this is something that needs to be changed and hopefully it can be changed soon. I recently wanted the movie Dark Waters and I know that is not the same thing as lead poisoning, but it tells the story how a company was dumping toxic materials into people drinking water and getting people sick. I think this happens way to much of companies trying to cover things up and not caring what happens to people who are in the way of what they are doing.

  2. It was news to me that some old homes still have lead paint in them. I assumed it was common knowledge that lead paint and other lead products that are close to where people live can be dangerous, and that people would take the necessary precautions to avoid getting sick. It will really be important for lead manufacturers to be held responsible for the way they produce lead in consumer products and it will also be important for local and national governments to do what they have to do to keep people safe from such an avoidable health risk.

  3. This has been one of my favorite articles to read on the website. I love how the article is organized and thoroughly explained the consequences of using lead. A smooth transition from how lead has impacted society on a variety of levels kept me engaged and interested throughout the reading. Also, recognizing the historical background and usage of lead definitely started as a great hook for catching my attention. I had previously studied the Flint Water crisis and I appreciate learning more about the lead toxins found in our everyday lives.

  4. I am always confused about how health and other problems are put as too expensive to fix, is it that the ones at the top don’t want spend money to do something that then are not going gain anything from it. I am also concerned about Chinas massive increase in the amount of lead produced, they are a known totalitarian government and have known concentration camps, a large increase in production can be used for many things good or bad.

  5. Cities, states and individuals should continue to sue the lead industry for its role for knowingly poisoning young children and others.

  6. I always knew about lead poisoning and its effects, however, I never knew that it had already gotten so widespread that it is already a large health problem. I’m glad that in this article it was shown how lead could be exposed to people so that those who do know about it now can be preventive. I hope more people read this article so that they can learn about the risks as well.

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