Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: lead poisoning from Processing Water, Wastewater, Residuals, and Excreta for Health and Environmental Protection: An Encyclopedic Dictionary

An illness caused by the accumulation of lead in the body from drinking water, metal vessels, or other sources. Lead accumulates in the body; e.g., 0.6 mg/day over a long period may be dangerous.

Summary Article: lead poisoning
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

or plumbism (plŭm'bĭz´´Әm), intoxication of the system by organic compounds containing lead. These enter the body by respiration (of dust, fumes, or sprays) or by ingestion of food or other substances that contain lead. Lead poisoning, formerly a leading occupational hazard in industrialized countries, can be an acute episode but is usually a chronic, cumulative disease brought about by continuous exposure.

See also occupational disease.


Many of the traditional sources of lead in the United States have been minimized by a variety of federal laws, enacted from 1978 on, banning lead paint and glazes and leaded gasolines, and prohibiting the use of lead pipes in construction and the use of lead solder in food and soda cans. Workplace exposure has been regulated by laws requiring the use of respirators, dust suppressors, and proper ventilation, and lead waste disposal guidelines have been developed. Continuing sources of environmental lead include water that has passed through old lead pipes, paint in older buildings, lead improperly disposed of in public landfills, and industrial sources such as mining, smelting, and recycling processes necessary to produce lead for batteries and other products.

Young children are usually exposed by ingesting paint chips containing lead. This source is most prevalent in poor areas where old, peeling lead-containing paint and plaster in rundown housing is common. Inadequately nourished or emotionally deprived children who resort to chewing inedible things (a condition known as pica) are most susceptible.

Effects and Treatment

Acute lead poisoning can result in abdominal discomfort, nervous system damage, and encephalitis. Chronic exposure is characterized by a blue line on the gums and can lead to damage to the brain, kidneys, nervous system, and red blood cells. Even low levels can contribute to hypertension in older people or to “silent lead poisoning” in exposed children, which affects the developing brain and leads to visual-motor problems, lowered intelligence, shortened attention span, and antisocial behavior. Lower doses may be treated by altering the diet to counteract lead's effects and and cleaning the person's environment to reduce intake. Higher doses are treated with chelating agents, drugs that remove lead from the body, but chelation's effects do not appear to extend to the brain. Symptoms recur upon subsequent exposure, and some of the effects of a mother's exposure can be passed to her children and grandchildren.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

Related Articles

Full text Article Lead Poisoning
Encyclopedia of Human Development

Lead has been used by mankind for more than 6,000 years because of its resistance to corrosion, its low melting point, and, ironically,...

Full text Article Lead Poisoning
Encyclopedia of Global Health

Although the sources of lead exposure vary around the world, the detrimental health and behavioral effects are consistent. Definitions of what is...

Full text Article Lead Poisoning
The Cambridge Historical Dictionary of Disease

Lead poisoning or plumbism simply means the undesirable health effects induced by lead. Many are nonspecific and are similar to effects...

See more from Credo