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lead exposure

Lead exposure

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Lead is a toxic, mutagenic and reprotoxic element. Used since ancient times, it has shaped entire civilisations, but its relationship with human health has also left a dark mark, leading to strict regulations over time. It was classified as a possible carcinogen in 1980 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (ARC), then as a probable carcinogen in 2004.

According to the 2017 Sumer survey, more than 200,000 employees are exposed to lead in France, particularly in sectors such as construction, industry and crafts.

In our article, we take a look at lead: its origin, health effects, prevention and treatment, and regulations.


Description and history

periodic table

Lead, a heavy metal with the symbol Pb and atomic number 82 in the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, has played a significant role in the history of mankind. It is the heaviest of the stable elements. Under Normal Conditions of Temperature and Pressure (NTCTP), lead is a malleable, bluish-grey metal that turns white on oxidation.

Easily extractable and relatively abundant on Earth, it has been one of the most widely used metals since prehistoric times. It has a rich history as a material used by different cultures throughout the ages. From the Sumerians to the Romans, lead has been used in a variety of applications, from pipes to cooking utensils. However, it was in the Middle Ages that the term "lead poisoning" was coined, linking lead to health problems, an association reinforced by the alchemical belief of the time associating lead with the planet Saturn.

It was not until the 19th century, following the death of a child in Australia, that recommendations and screening for lead poisoning were introduced:

  • 1914: Ban on the use of lead in the manufacture of drinking water pipes in Switzerland
  • 1948: Ban on lead paint in France
  • 1995: Total ban on lead pipes in France

The 2 main routes of poisoning are inhalation and ingestion.

Business sectors exposed to lead

The industry

The industry

Lead is widely used in a variety of industries, creating considerable exposure risks for workers. It is widely used in the following industrial applications:

  • The metallurgical industries (foundries, surface treatments, refining and rolling of lead and its alloys, deburring and polishing of all objects made of lead or lead alloys, flame cutting, tin-lead soldering, sanding of solder joints, metal recovery).
  • Use in electrical and electronic equipment: manufacture and recovery of lead accumulators and batteries, cables, etc.
  • The manufacture and use of pigments and additives for paints, varnishes, enamels, inks and plastics (e.g. PVC stabilisers).
  • The manufacture of X-ray protection screens (lead plates, lead glass, etc.).
  • The manufacture of lead crystal.
  • The manufacture of ammunition and projectiles containing lead.
  • The manufacture and use of anti-knock components in the oil industry.

The building

The building

Lead is associated with a number of building-related jobs:

  •     Work on paintwork and pipes in old buildings (removal, repair, etc.)
  •     Cutting or sandblasting metal structures coated with anti-corrosion paint
  •     Roofing work (lead soldering, use of lead sheeting, etc.)



Lead is associated with many trades in the craft industry, such as painters, joiners, carpenters, cabinet-makers, stained-glass manufacturers, etc.

It can be found in :

  •     stained glass manufacture and repair
  •     pottery
  •     art foundries
  •     jewellery making

but also in special environments such as shooting ranges.


Effects on health and the environment

Effects on health and the environment 1

Lead poisoning, also known as lead poisoning, is one of the oldest occupational diseases on record. It is listed in Table 1 of the French Social Security system (Affections dues au plomb et à ses composés) and Table 18 of the French Agricultural system (Maladies causées par le plomb et ses composés).

The 2 main routes of intoxication are inhalation and ingestion. Lead enters the body through the nose (smoke or dust, particularly when lead oxide particles are released) or through the mouth as a result of poor hand and face hygiene.

The effects of lead are :

  • on the nervous system: mood and memory disorders, deterioration in intellectual capacity, damage to peripheral motor nerves;
  • on the kidneys: disruption of elimination functions, chronic renal failure;
  • in the blood: reduced number of red blood cells (anaemia);
  • in the digestive system: lead colic (abdominal pain);
  • others: hepatic, endocrine, etc.
Effects on health and the environment 2

Lead can also be responsible for reproductive abnormalities:

  • in women: effects on pregnancy (abortion, premature delivery, etc.) ;
  • in men: impaired sperm production.

Children are particularly sensitive to lead poisoning, which can have an impact on the central nervous system, particularly in young children, with potentially serious clinical signs (convulsive coma, behavioural problems, mental retardation, etc.).

As far as the environment is concerned, lead is naturally present in the environment, but it is human activity that has led to an increase in the concentration of lead in the air, water and food. For example, the use of lead in petrol has led to the release of car exhaust fumes. These particles fall back to earth and pollute the soil, surface water and our food.

Prevention and treatment

Prevention and treatment

Prevention approach

Preventing exposure to lead is essential to minimise the risks to human health and the environment. The approach is as follows: Replace lead-containing products with less toxic ones and prevent people from inhaling and ingesting dusts and fumes, as well as the risk of environmental contamination.

Collective prevention

Employers must do everything in their power to ensure the best possible protection for their employees (Article L4121-1 of the French Labour Code).

  1.  Promote the evacuation of lead dust and fume emissions through ventilation and aeration of workplaces, thereby reducing concentrations of toxic substances to values as low as possible and below the VME (average exposure value).
  2. Installation of source capture systems: local exhaust at source consists of capturing pollutants as close as possible to their point of emission, before they enter the workers' respiratory tract and are dispersed throughout the atmosphere of the room. The pollutants are not diluted but evacuated.
  3. Carry out operations in a closed enclosure.
  4. Use techniques and operating methods that limit the emission of vapours (lowering the temperature) and produce as little dust as possible.
  5. Systematically vacuum dust from workstations using a hoover fitted with an absolute filter (no sweeping, which resuspends particles in the air) and moisten floors.
Individual prevention

Individual prevention

However, when collective prevention measures are unable to eliminate exposure to lead, it is essential to wear personal protective equipment (gloves, work clothes, ....), particularly respiratory protection. In absolute terms, therefore, the employer must always offer the best possible protection, especially as we are dealing with a non-threshold reprotoxicant.

- FFP2-type fine dust masks, made of paper or cardboard, lightweight, disposable, which filter particles but last only a few hours, may be suitable for low levels of exposure (which is most often the case if the technical measures are implemented).
- half-masks, mask with a filter cartridge, type FFP3, covering the nose and mouth, can be used to protect against smoke and dust in higher concentrations.
- Finally, an air-supplied mask is recommended for particularly exposed tasks in exceptionally difficult working conditions.

In all cases, the employer should refer to the assigned protection factors (APF) for this equipment.


The treatment of lead poisoning consists firstly of eliminating exposure to lead and waiting three to six months for the natural elimination of lead in mild cases, or undertaking a forced elimination of lead in more severe cases by using chelating drugs which bind lead ions to form lead ions.



For lead and its compounds, the French Labour Code sets :

  • A binding regulatory occupational exposure limit value (VLEP) of 0.1 mg/m, not to be exceeded as an 8-hour average in the atmosphere of workplaces (Article R. 4412-149).
  • The binding regulatory biological limit values (BLV) not to be exceeded are set at 400 μg of lead per litre of blood for men and 300 μg/l of blood for women (article R. 4412-152).
  • Specific medical surveillance of workers is required if exposure to a concentration of lead in the air is greater than 0.05 mg/m3, calculated as a time-weighted average on an eight-hour basis, or if a blood lead level greater than 200 micro g/l of blood for men or 100 micro g/l of blood for women is measured in a worker (article R4412-160).
  • A ban on employing young workers under the age of 18 in work exposing them to lead and its compounds (article D4153-27).
  • A ban on assigning women who have declared themselves pregnant or women who are breastfeeding to work exposing them to metallic lead and its compounds. A pregnant or breast-feeding employee must be offered a change of workstation if she is exposed to metallic lead or its compounds (decree no. 96-364 of 30 April 1996 on the protection of pregnant or breast-feeding workers against chemical, biological and physical risks).