Lead (Pb) is a soft, dense metal that occurs naturally, but is also used in many manufactured products. Since lead is so pliable, it has been used in a large variety of common items, including pipes, cable sheaths, batteries, solder, shotgun ammunition, fishing sinkers, and as a barrier to radioactivity. Lead air emissions have historically come predominantly from vehicle exhaust and industrial facilities; with changes in the lead content of gasoline and diesel fuels, however, the current major source of lead in the air are metals processing plants and smelters. Lead air emissions are also created by waste incinerators, lead-acid battery manufacturers, and utilities. Visit the US EPA web page on lead for more information.

Health impacts of lead

Lead in the air can either be inhaled or ingested after it has settled on animals, plants, or soil. Once in the body, the bloodstream moves the lead particles into the skeleton, where accumulation occurs. Depending on the level and duration of exposure, lead can affect the nervous, immune, reproductive, developmental, and cardiovascular systems, as well as cognitive and kidney function. Studies have shown that lead exposure in children, who are particularly susceptible, can result in a decrease in IQ and negative impacts on learning ability, memory, and behavior.

Lead, more so than some other criteria pollutants, has a significant impact on the environment, especially animals. Studies have shown that natural areas near lead sources suffer a loss in biodiversity, changes in community composition, decreased growth and reproductive rates, and neurological effects in animals.

For additional information about the health impacts of air pollution in Minnesota, you can check out our most recent air quality report, the Air we breathe, or visit the Be Air Aware website. You can sign up for air quality alerts and forecasts.

Air quality standards that help protect us from adverse effects of lead

The Clean Air Act regulates lead as a criteria pollutant. The U.S. EPA sets National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for lead, including both primary standards to protect public health and secondary standards to protect the environment. In 2008, the EPA reviewed the science related to the health and environmental impacts of lead and revised the NAAQS to reflect the most up-to-date information. The standard for both the current primary and secondary for lead is 0.15 µg/m3.

The state of Minnesota is currently in compliance with the national standards for lead. To see the MPCA’s monitoring data for lead and other criteria pollutants, explore our Criteria Pollutant Data Explorer.