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3.0 Health Effects

  • Issued: September 2004
  • Content last reviewed: April 2011

Disclaimer: This resource has been prepared to help the workplace parties understand some of their obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and regulations. It is not legal advice. It is not intended to replace the OHSA or the regulations. For further information please see full disclaimer.

How lead enters the body — what are the routes of entry?

Two routes of entry are of major concern: inhalation and ingestion. Airborne lead particles in the form of fumes, dusts and mists can be inhaled deeply into the lungs if they are small enough, less than five micrometres (mm), i.e., five one-millionths of a meter. Larger particles are trapped in the upper respiratory tract, cleared from the lungs, and subsequently swallowed. You can also swallow lead dust if it gets in your food or drinks, or if you eat or smoke without washing your hands first.

What happens when lead enters the body — what are the health effects?

Shortly after lead is inhaled or ingested, it can enter the bloodstream and travel to soft tissues (such as the liver, kidneys, lungs, brain, spleen, muscles, and heart). After several weeks, most of the lead moves into your bones and teeth and can be stored there for a long time. Therefore, exposure to small amounts of lead can build up over time, and the more lead you have in your body, the more likely it is that you will experience health problems.

Early signs of lead poisoning include:

  • tiredness
  • irritability
  • muscle and joint pain
  • headaches
  • stomach aches and cramps.

Harmful effects can follow a high exposure over a short period of time (acute poisoning), or long-term exposure to lower doses (chronic poisoning). Symptoms of acute lead poisoning include a metallic taste in the mouth and gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting, abdominal cramps, constipation, and diarrhea. Symptoms of chronic lead poisoning are more difficult to recognize because they are similar to many common complaints. However, severe chronic poisoning can lead to more characteristic symptoms, such as a blue line on the gums, wrist drop (the inability to hold the hand extended), severe abdominal pain and pallor.

Lead can also cause serious damage to a number of systems in the body. Overexposure to lead can affect:

Blood: Lead can interfere with the body's ability to manufacture hemoglobin, the molecule in red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen to the tissues. This may lead to anemia.

Kidneys: Kidneys purify blood before it is distributed for use by the rest of the body. However, kidneys are not effective in filtering lead from the bloodstream. In addition, lead can damage the kidneys and reduce its ability to filter waste from the bloodstream.

Gastrointestinal System: Lead poisoning may result in abdominal pain, loss of appetite, vomiting, nausea, constipation or diarrhea.

Nervous System: Lead poisoning can cause peripheral nerve damage that results in muscle weakness. It may also lead to behavioural changes and to impairment of vision and hearing. At very high levels, lead can affect the brain, causing convulsions, coma, and even death.

Reproductive System: Lead may harm the developing fetus because of the shared blood supply between a mother and her fetus. Exposure of pregnant women to excessive lead may result in miscarriages and stillbirths. Overexposure to lead in men can impair sperm production.

Bones and Teeth: Absorbed lead can be deposited and stored in mineralizing tissues (bones and teeth) for a long period of time. Under certain circumstances, the release of stored lead increases and can re-enter the blood and target other systems in the body. The release of stored lead increases during periods of pregnancy, lactation, menopause, physiologic stress, chronic disease, hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, broken bones, and advanced age, and is exacerbated by calcium deficiency.

Although there are many possible symptoms, they should not be relied upon to warn of a lead-exposure problem because some changes take a long time to develop and workers may not notice a change in their health. If workers carry lead-containing dust home on their clothes, footwear, skin or hair, their family can be exposed to lead too. Children in particular are more susceptible to the harmful effects of lead. Even low-level exposures may harm the intellectual development, behaviour, size and hearing of infants. The best approach in preventing lead poisoning is to ensure that proper lead-exposure controls are in place before any health problems are noted.

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Disclaimer: This web resource has been prepared to assist the workplace parties in understanding some of their obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and the regulations. It is not intended to replace the OHSA or the regulations and reference should always be made to the official version of the legislation.

It is the responsibility of the workplace parties to ensure compliance with the legislation. This web resource does not constitute legal advice. If you require assistance with respect to the interpretation of the legislation and its potential application in specific circumstances, please contact your legal counsel.

While this web resource will also be available to Ministry of Labour inspectors, they will apply and enforce the OHSA and its regulations based on the facts as they may find them in the workplace. This web resource does not affect their enforcement discretion in any way.