Lead Exposures in Adults

Environmental Health
Public Health

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​​​​​​​About Lead Exposures in Adults

Lead is a toxic metal that is still found in the environment and used in many industries and products. Exposures to lead can increase blood lead levels and can cause serious health problems. Most adult lead exposures are due to a person's work or hobby, but adults can be exposed to lead from other sources. 

Adult Lead Exposure FAQs

What is lead?

Lead is a toxic metal used in many industries and found in several consumer products. Lead poisoning can occur when lead builds ​up in the body. No amount of lead in the body is considered safe.

Am I at risk for lead exposures?

Workplace exposures

Lead poisoning in adults is usually due to lead exposures in the workplace. Workers can inhale lead dust or fumes, or swallow dust while eating, drinking, or smoking through hand-to-mouth contact. Workers who perform certain jobs and activities are at a higher risk for lead poisoning. Examples of high-risk occupations are featured below.

Occupations at risk for lead exposures

  • Contractors who renovate or repair homes or buildings built before 1978
  • Workers who sand, scrape or blast lead-based paint
  • Recyclers of metal, electronics, and batteries
  • Construction workers
  • Demolition workers who work on old structures or who cutting torches
  • Firing range workers, gunsmiths, or police officers
  • Foundries and scrap metal operations
  • Lead smelters
  • Manufacturers of bullets, ceramics, electronics, or jewelry
  • Bridge construction and repair
  • Steel workers

Hobbies at risk for lead exposures

  • Some hobbies that involve lead can cause exposures in adults.
  • Shooting in indoor ranges
  • Making bullets or fishing sinkers
  • Making pottery, stained glass, or jewelry
  • Home renovations, furniture refinishing
  • Car or boat repair

Other sources of lead exposures

Lead found in folk and traditional medicines, candy, and water can all cause lead exposures in adults. For more information, see Sources of Lead.

How can lead exposures affect my health?

Most people are exposed to lead dust and lead fumes by swallowing or breathing it in. Once it is in the body, lead can be stored in your organs and bones where it can cause serious and permanent damage to your kidneys, brain, heart, and reproductive system. Lead can damage the body even if you are exposed to small amounts of lead over a long period of time. Lead exposures can cause:

  • High blood pressure
  • Digestive problems
  • Decreased sex drive, infertility
  • Memory loss and difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability and mood disorders
  • Metallic taste in mouth
  • Tiredness or weakness
  • Hearing and vision problems

Your risk of health damage increases with the amount of lead in your body and the length of time you have been exposed. It is important to remember that lead may hurt your body even if you do not feel sick or show the above signs.

How do I know if I am exposed to lead?

A simple blood lead test is the only way to find out if an adult has lead poisoning. The test, known as a blood lead level (BLL), measures how much lead is in your body. If you think you are exposed to lead at work or at home, ask your employer or family physician for a blood lead test.

Does my employer have to protect me from lead?

Most employers must follow regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to prevent lead exposures at work. For more information, visit OSHA's lead page at https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/lead/.

What is 'take-home' lead?

People who have jobs or hobbies that involve lead may bring lead dust into your home on work clothes, skin, or equipment. This is called 'take-home lead' and it can expose anyone who comes in contact with it. Washing work clothes or uniforms at home can contaminate other family members clothing. Take-home lead can even cause lead poisoning in children who live in or visit the home.

How can I protect myself and my family?

  • Wash your hands and face before you eat, drink, or smoke.
  • Do NOT eat, drink, or smoke in areas of lead dust and fumes.
  • Keep your work areas clean using wet cleaning methods and/or using a HEPA vacuum rated for lead dust. Do not dry sweep or use compressed air to remove lead dust.
  • Wear a clean, properly fitted respirator (not a dust mask) equipped with P100 or equivalent filter in all work areas that have lead dust or fumes. To ensure the best fit, shave prior to wearing.
  • Store your street clothes in your locker.
  • Shower and change into clean clothes and shoes before you leave work or hobby area.
  • Wash your clothes at work if possible. Otherwise, wash and dry separately from other family members clothing.
  • Keep your vehicle free of lead dust and contamination.
  • Keep children away from work and hobby areas.
  • If you work with lead, follow the health and safety protocol for your workplace.
  • Participate in your employer's lead screening program if you are at risk for lead poisoning.