Working with and around lead

Stained glass artist working with lead

What is lead?

  • Lead is a poisonous metal found in common items such as batteries, bullets and other metal products.
  • In the past, lead was used regularly in paint, ceramics, caulk, and pipe solder among other things. Because of its potential health problems, the amount of lead used in these products today has lessened or been removed.
  • Though used less often, lead is still common in many industries, including construction, mining and manufacturing.
  • Workers are at risk of coming into contact with lead by breathing it in, swallowing it or coming in contact with it.

How do workers get lead poisoning?

If you work around products or materials that contain lead, you could be at risk. Workers in certain jobs and industries are more likely to come in contact with lead. These jobs are known to put workers at higher risk of lead exposure:

  • Artists (materials used may contain lead).
  • Auto mechanics (car parts may contain lead).
  • Battery manufacturers (batteries may contain lead).
  • Bridge reconstruction workers (old paint may contain lead).
  • Construction workers (materials used may include lead).
  • Firing range personnel and gunsmiths (ammunition may contain lead).
  • Glass manufacturers (materials used may include lead).
  • Lead manufacturers, miners, refiners and smelters.
  • Manufacturers of bullets, ceramics and electrical components (materials made may contain lead). 
  • Painters (old paint and commercial paint may contain lead).
  • Plastic manufacturers (materials made may contain lead).
  • Plumbers and pipefitters (pipes may contain lead).
  • Police officers (ammunition may contain lead).
  • Radiator repairers (radiators may contain lead).
  • Recyclers of metal, electronics and batteries (materials may contain lead).
  • Rubber product manufacturers (process contains lead).
  • Shipbuilders (materials used may include lead).
  • Solid waste incinerator operators (waste may contain lead).
  • Steel welder (galvanized steel is coated in part with lead).

How does lead get into the body?

If coming into contact with lead is a possibility in your job, it is important that you understand how this occurs so you can take steps to lower your chances of getting sick from lead.

You can breathe in lead fumes or lead dust. 

Lead fumes are produced during metal processing, when metal is being heated or soldered. Lead dust is produced when metal is being cut or when lead paint is sanded or removed with a heat gun. 

Lead fumes and lead dust do not have an odor, so you may not know you are breathing it in. 

You can swallow lead dust. 

Lead dust can settle on food, water, clothes and other objects. If you eat, drink or smoke in areas where lead is being processed or stored, you could swallow lead dust. Not washing your hands before you eat or touch your mouth are also ways you could swallow lead. 

Though not always the case, swallowed lead may leave a metallic taste in your mouth. 

You can come into contact with lead dust. 

Some studies have found that lead can be absorbed through the skin.1 If you handle lead and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth, you are at risk. Lead dust can also get on your clothes and your hair. If this happens, you could track home some of the lead dust, which may harm your family.


What health problems can lead cause?

It doesn't matter if a person breathes in, swallows or absorbs lead particles, the health problems are the same, but the body absorbs higher levels of lead when it is breathed in. 

Our bodies absorb lead and store it in our bones, blood and tissues.

Health problems when you come into contact with lead over a short period of time: 

Lead poisoning can happen if a person comes into contact with very high levels of lead over a short period of time. When this happens, a person may experience:

  • Abdominal pain.
  • Constipation.
  • Irritability.
  • Weakness.
  • Fatigue.
  • Headaches.
  • Memory loss.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Pain or tingling in the hands and/or feet. 

Because these symptoms may occur slowly or may be caused by other things, lead poisoning can be easily overlooked. Coming into contact with high levels of lead may cause anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage. Very high lead exposure can cause death.

Pregnant people who come into contact with lead may harm their unborn child. Lead can damage a developing baby’s nervous system. Even low levels of lead in developing babies have been found to affect behavior, speech and hearing. Lead can cause miscarriage, stillbirths and infertility. 

Lead affects children more than it does adults. Lead poisoning has happened in children whose parent(s) or caregiver(s) accidentally brought home lead dust on their clothing. Neurological problems and developmental delays have occurred in children whose parent(s) or caregiver(s) may have come into contact with lead on the job.2 

If you work around lead, make sure to change your clothes and shoes before entering the house. 

Health problems when you come into contact with lead over a long period of time: 

A person who has come into contact with lead over a long period of time may experience: 

  • Abdominal pain.
  • Distractedness.
  • Forgetfulness.
  • Constipation.
  • Depression.
  • Irritability.
  • Nausea. 

People with prolonged contact with lead may also be at risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, and reduced fertility. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have determined that lead probably causes cancer in humans.3


How can I find out if I have lead poisoning?

A simple blood test can show if you have lead poisoning or not. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says no one should have a blood lead level (BLL) more than 3.5 ųg/dL (test levels are measured in micrograms per deciliter). This simple blood test can measure your blood lead levels. Your employer may do routine BLL testing. If not, you may want to talk with your doctor about having this test done. If levels are high, you can take steps to protect yourself and your family better.



For information about lead and your health, contact ToxCall at 303-692-2606 or cdphe_toxcall@state.co.us.  

To request this web page information in a fact sheet, email cdphe_leadreports@state.co.us.