Lead alert facts: Lead and the environment
Department of the Environment and Heritage
This summary explains why public health authorities are concerned about lead exposure. It also outlines the action being taken to reduce lead in our environment.
What is the concern about lead?
We have been using lead for thousands of years, and our reliance on lead has increased substantially since the industrial revolution. However, we now know that lead is dangerous to the human body, and as a result we no longer use lead as much as we did in the past.
Some of the past uses of lead have left behind serious environmental problems. Deteriorating lead-based paint in older houses, and mining and smelting communities left to deal with high concentrations of lead in air, water and soil, are just two examples of the types of problems that can be difficult and expensive to remove.
Lead has only harmful effects on our health, and each time we are exposed to lead some of it is stored in our bodies for the rest of our lives. This means that even small amounts of lead in our environment can be harmful if we are continually exposed.
Young children are most vulnerable because they tend to suck their fingers or objects that might be contaminated with dust and because their growing bodies absorb lead readily. Young children absorb up to 50% of lead that is taken into their body, compared to 10–15% in adults. Furthermore, even low levels of lead in the blood may harm young children.
Alerted to the new evidence, industry, governments and community groups are now implementing strategies to reduce the risk of lead to our health.
How does lead exposure occur
We all take in small amounts of lead from the environment. Mostly lead is swallowed or inhaled in the form of fine particles which have come from one or several of the following sources.
Mines and smelters
Lead particles emanating from industrial processes may accumulate in household dust, soil and water. In mining towns, lead will probably be present naturally in the soil.
Hobbies and occupations
Lead residues from contact with lead in work or hobbies can be carried by people into their homes.
Paint containing lead
Used in many Australian houses before 1970. Risks are increased if the paint is flaking or chalking and are particularly high when the paint is being removed by dangerous methods such as sanding, hot air guns, sandblasting or burning.
Lead emissions from motor vehicles contribute about 90% of airborne lead in Australia's urban areas.
What is lead used for?
Lead has many beneficial uses in modern society, for example:
- in the motor car – every motor vehicle on the road requires a lead battery to start
- in television and personal computers – the leaded glass in the tube and screen protects the user from potentially harmful radiation.
Other everyday applications include cable sheathing, bearings, low-melting alloys such as solders and as protective shields against x-rays.
Australia is a major producer and exporter of lead. The Australian lead industry, along with other sectors such as the petroleum and motor trades industries, is supporting strategies to reduce lead exposure.
What are we doing to reduce lead in our environment?
- The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that 60% of all lead used in Australia is recycled. Currently 93% of all motor vehicle batteries are recycled.
- A national public education campaign was conducted in early 1994 to encourage drivers of pre-1986 cars to use unleaded petrol if their car could run on it. A price differential of 2c per litre was introduced to encourage the changeover.
- Lead levels in petrol have been lowered in all States and Territories. The use of lead as a petrol additive is steadily declining.
- The Commonwealth Government has announced that leaded petrol will be phased out nationally by 1 January 2002. Some States have already begun this process.
- The lead content of paint was reduced in December 1997 to a maximum of 0.1% for paints used in places accessible to people, such as houses, roofs, fences, toys, bridges, building and pipelines.
- The community is being provided with information about the danger of disturbing old lead-based paint present in many older homes.
- The Department of the Environment and Heritage provides advice through the Community Information Unit about simple steps people can take to reduce lead exposure in their home environment
For more information
Phone the Department of the Environment and Heritage's Community Information Unit on 1800 803 772.
You can ask for fact sheets about lead and your health, lead in stained glass, pottery, and ceramics, and house, marine and automobile paints.
See also our website at http://www.environment.gov.au/settlements/chemicals/index.html.