Where Is Lead Found?

There are multiple sources of lead in the environment that threaten the developing minds and capacities of young children. The primary source of lead exposure for children in Wisconsin is lead in paint or varnish in the house dust and lead-contaminated soil. The effects of lead depend on both the level and the duration of lead exposure.

Young children are most vulnerable to lead and its lasting effects. Adults are vulnerable as well, especially if their occupation exposes them to lead, and they may bring this lead home and expose their children. Lead in the water and the air and other products, such as traditional home remedies and cosmetics, can contribute to a child's lead exposure. 

Sources of Lead Exposure

Information on this page has been organized into 6 categories. Please choose one of the following tabs.

Lead in Paint

Exposure to lead-based paint (LBP) is the major source of lead poisoning for children in Wisconsin. When lead paint is intact, it is unlikely to cause exposure. The risk of exposure increases as the paint breaks down into smaller particles. The smaller the particles, the more easily they are dispersed, become accessible to children, and are absorbed by the body. If lead paint is allowed to deteriorate due to normal wear (moisture damage, temperature changes, friction, or impact), or when paint or varnish are deliberately disturbed by renovation activity, house dust and soil become contaminated. The resulting lead-tainted dust enters a child’s body through normal hand-to-mouth activity.

Routes of Exposure

  • The most common route of exposure is from the lead dust created by deteriorating LBP or renovation activities which can stick to fingers, toys, soil, food, and other accessible surfaces. Young children are then likely to ingest the lead dust through normal hand-to-mouth activity.
  • Another route of lead exposure is when children chew on things, such as windows and window sills, doors and door frames, stairs, railings and banisters, porches, fences, and/or furniture.
  • Even surfaces that are covered with a new layer of paint, can be a source of exposure is they are a friction surface or consistently rub together, exposing underlying layers of LBP.
  • Lead in varnish is typically found on floors, stairs, doors, windows and wood trim and even old baby cribs. Even if intact if a child chews on varnished surfaces, the child can ingest lead.

Disturbing LPB and Varnish is Federally Regulated

LBP or varnish that is intact, undisturbed, and inaccessible to young children may not pose a lead hazard and should be left alone. If it is going to be disturbed, by federal law the person doing the work must be a certified lead-safe renovation contractor (PDF, 1.38 MB).

Reliable Sources of Information on Lead in Paint and Varnish

The Lead-Safe Housing Rule

Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992 (Title X) (PDF, 108 KB)

Occupational Exposure

Lead is one of the most common exposures found in industry and is a primary cause of workplace illness. If you work around products or materials that contain lead, there a chance you could be exposed. OSHA is moving toward a five-year goal of a 15% reduction in the average severity of lead exposure or employee blood lead levels in selected industries and workplaces. 

Certain jobs have been known to put workers at risk of lead exposure:

  • Artists/ Painters
  • Construction Workers
  • Auto Repairers
  • Glass Manufacturers
  • Lead Manufacturers/ Miners/ Refiners/ Smelters
  • Plumbers/ Pipe Fitters
  • Welders

Routes of Exposure

  • Lead-emitting industries such as smelters and battery manufacturing plants can cause lead contamination of air, soil, and food grown in contaminated soil.
  • Adults working in these industries or other hobbies or occupations involving exposure to lead may be directly exposed and/or may carry lead-contaminated dust home to their families on their hair, clothing and shoes.
  • Adults may contaminate their vehicle if they do not shower and change their clothes, including their shoes, before entering the vehicle.
  • A child in Wisconsin was poisoned because the car seat in the vehicle had high levels of lead from the parent's occupation.

How Can You Keep Yourself and Your Family Safe from Lead?

  • Eat/drink in areas where lead-containing products are not being handled or processed.
  • Wear proper Personal Protective Equipment.
  • Use effective lead removal products to clean you hands. (Washing your hands with soap and water WILL NOT be enough to remove lead residues).
  • Shower and change your clothing and shoes after working around lead hazards.
  • Wash your work clothing separately from the family's laundry.
  • Work in well-ventilated areas.
  • Talk to your employer about other lead-safe practices.
Reliable Sources of Information on Lead in Occupation/Hobbies

CDC - Reproductive Health

Lead Hazards - Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) (FACTSHEET)

Lead -  OSHA

Wisconsin DHS Environmental Public Health Tracking (EPHT)

The Effects of Workplace Hazards on Female Reproductive Health CDC/NIOSH

Lead in Air

Lead in the air is a problem because people can breathe it in, and also because people can end up swallowing the lead dust found in soil and water. It is particularly bad because the lead in the dust and soil does not decompose or decay.

Lead dust particles in the household result from indoor sources such as old lead paint on surfaces that are frequently in motion or bump or rub together (such as window frames), deteriorating old lead paint on any surface, home repair activities, tracking lead-contaminated soil from the outdoors into the indoor environment, or even from lead dust on clothing worn at a job site. Lead paint chips and dust can get on surfaces and objects that people touch. Settled lead dust can re-enter the air when the home is vacuumed or swept, or when people walk through.

Reliable Sources of Information on Lead in Air

The Environmental Protection Agency has a national database that shows you what types of lead sources make up the total amount of lead in the air.

Lead in Soil

Lead has made its way into the soil around homes through several different routes:

  • Paint
  • Leaded gasoline
  • Environmental emissions

Lead is naturally occurring, and can be found in high concentrations in some areas. In addition, soil, yards, and playgrounds can become contaminated when exterior lead-based paint from houses or buildings flakes or peels and gets into the soil. Lead in soil can be ingested as a result of hand-to-mouth activity that is common for young children and from eating vegetables that may have taken up lead from soil in the garden. Lead in soil may also be inhaled if re-suspended in the air, or tracked into your house thereby spreading the contamination.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines soil lead hazard as 400 parts per million (ppm) in play areas and a 1,200 ppm average for bare soil in the rest of the yard.

Reliable Sources of Information on Lead in Soil

If your soil has lead, or if you are not sure, please view the publication Human Health Hazards: Lead in soil from exterior lead paint (P-45015; PDF, 165 KB) to get advice for homeowners.

Lead in Water

Lead is typically not found in drinking water. However, lead can enter drinking water through corrosion of plumbing materials, especially where the water has high acidity or low mineral content that corrodes pipes and fixtures. The EPA estimates that drinking water accounts for 10-20 percent of human exposure to lead.

Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures and solder.  Beginning January 2014, changes to the Safe Drinking Water Act reduced the maximum allowable lead content of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures from 8 percent to 0.25 percent.

The only way to find out if a home has high levels of lead in the drinking water is to test the water. If it has not been tested, there are several things that can be done to reduce ingestion of lead from drinking water:

  1. Do not drink, cook, or make baby formula with water from the hot water tap.
  2. Consider purchasing a filter certified for lead removal, or purchase bottled water.
  3. Replace the plumbing or service line, or lead-containing faucets.

NOTE: Boiling the water WILL NOT reduce the amount of lead; it will concentrate the lead in water.

NOTE: Bathing IS NOT A PROBLEM, unless the one bathing is ingesting the water; lead does not enter the body through your skin.

Reliable Sources of Information on Lead in Paint and Varnish

For more information on lead contamination in water, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website on Lead and Water

Lead in Products

Reliable Sources of Information on Lead in Products

Toys/ Products for Children

Remedies/ Candies

  • Warning: Sindoor Contains Lead - A product called "SINDOOR" is often added to food as a food coloring. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an alert on Dec. 17, 2007, warning consumers not to use the Swad brand Sindoor product because testing conducted by the Illinois Department of Public Health indicated this product contained very high levels of lead, sometimes as high as 87%.
  • Toxic Treats (poster in English or in Spanish) - California and U.S. health officials have detected dangerous levels of lead in 112 distinct brands of candy – most of them made in Mexico. One in four candy and wrapper samples have tested high since 1993, records show.

Other Products

Cornell Chronicle: Christmas lights pose lead threat: A Cornell University article discussing the results of study done on Christmas light sets. [November 24, 2008]
Lead Paint and Vermont’s Essential Maintenance Practices (PDF, 6.8 MB): Tips from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to follow when using porcelain and ceramic glazed products and home maintenance practices.

Last Revised: May 13, 2016