Health effects from lead exposure

The effects from lead are the same whether it enters the body by breathing or swallowing. Lead targets the brain and nervous system in both adults and children.


In adults, long-term exposure to low levels of lead may be associated with:

  • weakness in fingers, wrists and ankles
  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • small increases in blood pressure
  • anaemia (low iron in the blood)
  • damaged nerve and renal function.

At very high levels, lead can severely damage brain and kidney function and ultimately cause death. People with diabetes have a higher risk of adverse effects associated with the kidney.

In pregnant women, high levels of exposure may cause decreased birth weight or miscarriage, while it can damage the organs responsible for sperm production in men.

Currently, there is no conclusive evidence lead is carcinogenic (cancer causing).


Children can be exposed to lead during pregnancy. Children are also susceptible in their early years, as they tend to spend time in areas that can easily be contaminated such as floors and soil.

If exposed to the same amount of lead, children will absorb five times more lead into their body than adults.

Children are more susceptible to the effects from lead because:

  • their brains are still growing and developing
  • they swallow, absorb and retain more lead in their bodies.

Long-term exposure to low levels of lead may be associated with:

  • reduced growth
  • learning difficulties
  • behavioural problems
  • reduced IQ in young children.

Lead exposure can cause hearing difficulties and affect the nervous system outside the brain. These effects are most likely not reversible.

At high blood lead levels effects may include:

  • anaemia
  • colic
  • muscle weakness
  • lack of appetite
  • brain damage with seizures.

In some cases, lead levels may need to be lowered by treating with drugs, which can bind to lead and help the body eliminate it.

No safe level of lead exposure

Humans do not need lead for any bodily function.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) advises that:

  • lead can be harmful to people of all ages, but the risk of health effects is highest for unborn babies, infants and children
  • blood lead levels greater than 10 micrograms per decilitre can have harmful effects on many organs and bodily functions
  • if a person has a blood lead-level greater than 5 micrograms per decilitre, the source of exposure should be investigated and reduced, particularly if the person is a child or pregnant.

Other resources

Further information

For further information on the health effects from lead exposure, contact SA Health's Scientific Services on (08) 8226 7100.