It's Your Health
Lead is a metal that occurs naturally in the earth. It has many industrial uses and is found in trace amounts everywhere in the human environment.
The amount of lead in the environment increased during the Industrial Revolution, and again in the 1920s with the introduction of leaded gasoline. However, levels of lead in the Canadian environment have gone down significantly over the past 30 years. Recent studies have also shown a decline of over 70% in blood lead levels in Canadians since the 1970s. Still, there are steps you can take to further reduce your exposure.
Lead can be harmful to people of all ages. Recent scientific studies show that negative health effects are occurring at lower levels of exposure to lead than previously thought. Low-level exposure may have subtle effects on the intellectual development and behaviour of infants and children. They are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of lead because their growing bodies absorb lead more easily and get rid of it less efficiently than adults. Also, infants and young children are more likely to ingest lead because of their normal habit of putting things in their mouths. In adults, the strongest scientific evidence to date suggests low levels of lead exposure may cause a small increase in blood pressure.
Ongoing exposure to even small amounts of lead may eventually result in harmful levels in the body. Once lead is absorbed into your blood, it is either eliminated from your body (mostly in urine) or builds up in your bones. It can remain stored in your body for over 30 years.
Health effects associated with exposure to high levels of lead include vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, coma or even death. However, such severe cases of lead poisoning are rare in Canada.
Everyone is exposed to trace levels of lead through food, drinking water, air, household dust, and soil. Before leaded gasoline was phased out in Canada in the 1990s, lead in the air was the main source of exposure for Canadians. It is still a source of low-level lead exposure, but now adults are exposed mainly through food and drinking water.
For infants and children, the main sources are:
In most of Canada, the amount of lead in natural water supplies is very low. But lead can enter the water supply in your home from:
Homes built before 1950 often have lead pipes. Also, lead solder was used for plumbing until 1990 when the National Plumbing Code of Canada no longer allowed its use in new drinking water plumbing or in repairs.
Water in a plumbing system is more likely to contain lead if it:
Hot water increases the leaching of lead into the drinking water. Many towns and cities have programs to replace lead service lines. To find out if your home has a lead service line, contact your municipality.
Lead is not added to food on purpose, but low levels have been found in a variety of foods. Lead may enter foods from the soil, water or air and may also contaminate foods during transport and processing. Lead can also be transferred to your food during preparation, serving or storage if you:
In Canada and most other countries, food manufacturers have stopped using lead-soldered food cans. This has greatly reduced dietary exposure to lead.
One of the main sources of lead exposure for infants and children is dust and soil. Lead levels in soil tend to be higher:
Lead-contaminated soil can be tracked into your home. Lead can also enter household dust from sources already in your home, especially in older homes that contain lead-based paints. Children can be exposed to lead in soil or household dust through normal hand-to-mouth activity.
Lead can be released into the air through industrial emissions, smelters and refineries. Unleaded gasoline was introduced in Canada in 1975 and leaded gasoline was banned in the 1990s. Lead levels in the air have dropped by more than 99% since 1984, so exposure through the air is less of a concern for most Canadians.
Many older homes in Canada have indoor or outdoor surfaces coated with lead-based paint. If this paint is in good condition and not on a surface that a child might suck or chew, your risk is minimal. It is best to leave it alone or paint over it.
Lead-based paint in your home is a serious health hazard if it is:
If you have this problem in your home, or if you are planning renovations that will damage painted surfaces, you should remove the paint. It's important to follow very specific instructions for safely removing old paint.
The levels of lead in consumer paints have steadily gone down since the introduction of restrictions in 1976 under the Surface Coating Materials Regulations. Homes built and painted between 1976 and 1990 may have small amounts of lead on indoor surfaces, while paints on outdoor surfaces are likely to contain higher amounts of lead. There is little need for concern about lead-based paint on indoor or outdoor surfaces of homes built in 1991 or later.
Some specialty surface coatings, like artists' paints and metal touch-up coatings, are allowed to contain lead. But if they do, they must have a label that warns against applying the product to surfaces that children and pregnant women might come in contact with.
Other potential sources of exposure to lead include:
Workers in smelters, refineries and other industries may be exposed to high levels of lead. Lead dust may be inhaled. It can cling to skin, hair, clothing, footwear and vehicles, and be carried into your home. Most provincial governments require that workers exposed to lead be monitored regularly for lead in their blood.
Take these steps to reduce your family's exposure to lead:
If you are concerned that you or a family member has been exposed to lead, speak to your doctor.
The Government of Canada has been working to reduce exposure to lead and minimize health risks to Canadians for many years. The significant decline of lead in the Canadian environment and in Canadians since the 1970s is mainly due to the phase-out of lead in:
We have also worked with partners to develop many regulations and guidelines to reduce lead in cosmetics, drinking water, food, natural health and drug products, tobacco, industrial releases, and other sources like soil and air. Examples are:
Also, Health Canada's Lead Risk Reduction Strategy for Consumer Products has introduced or tightened lead content limits for:
The Government of Canada continues to focus its efforts and resources on further reducing exposure to lead in ways that can make the most difference for the health of Canadians over the long term. For example, we are proposing further lead content limits for other product groups that children are most likely to be exposed to. As part of our Risk Management Strategy for Lead, we are also:
We also provide active support for international efforts focused on reducing exposure to lead on a global basis, including:
You can also call toll free at 1-866-225-0709 or TTY at 1-800-267-1245.
Updated: February 2013
Original: November 2002
ęHer Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Health, 2013
Catalogue # H13-7/101-2013E-PDF
ISBN # 978-1-100-21772-7