Lead is a chemical element with the symbol Pb, and atomic number equal to 82. It is a heavy metal that is denser than most common materials. Lead is a very soft metal and it’s easily moulded into all sorts of shapes. Lead has the highest atomic number of any stable (non-radioactive) element.
Uses of Lead
Lead can be oxidised over the years and gives a white material that was used for paints. This white lead paint that people use, the oxide of lead, had one unfortunate consequence that it reacts with sulphur in the air to give a black colour which made the white paint eventually turn grey and if you waited long enough black.
The other very important property of lead is that because the lead atom is heavy it is very good at stopping radioactive particles particularly alpha particles, which are helium nuclei those are the nucleus of the helium atom, or beta particles which are electrons.
People have developed lead glass which is immensely heavy, and there is really a large amount of lead that has been put in it. And some of the fancy crystals had a bit of lead in the glass. Windows containing this type of glasses can be used for Handling really quite radioactive materials behind them.
Lead was very widely used in the UK for water pipes because it’s easy to manufacture and to join together. It tends not to have been very dangerous in terms of drinking water because it gets a coating on the surface so you do not get much lead in the water.
It was also used very widely from the 1920s up till the late 70s or 80s as an additive for petrol. In the old days when petrol engines were first introduced, when you came to a hill and put down the accelerator of your car, the engine started misfiring. So it was really quite Difficult to drive up hills, but then it was discovered the tetraethyl lead, which was really very poisonous.
Only in quite recent times, it was realised how much lead was being blown out into the atmosphere in car exhausts. And so it’s now almost everywhere we have lead-free petrol as a result of people who were poisoned by lead.
Lead has had a very long history; it was one of the first metals to be widely used. The Romans used this for drinking materials. There is also lead acetate, that is a compound of lead and vinegar is meant to taste sweet and the Romans added this to their wine to make it sweeter. The fact that it was really very poisonous and possibly even caused madness, was not really widely recognised. In fact some people have suggested that part of the collapse of the Roman Empire was due to too much lead. So Lead is causing a massive global health crisis.
Lead is a highly toxic metal, and has particularly harmful effects on children. Young children absorb about 4–5 times as much Lead as adults, and it affects almost every organ in their body. Even limited exposure to Lead can cause damage. One in three children worldwide is now affected. That’s around 800 million children across the globe at risk of lead poisoning.
Lead still has some valuable uses in things like Batteries and electronics. And if handled with care and recycled properly, it can even be possible to live alongside Lead. But once Lead is released into the environment, usually through people handling it the wrong way, it just can’t help getting into everything it touches:
- Into the soil between us, through improper battery recycling, disposal of unwanted electronics and other industrial processes, and from the dust released by peeling or chipping lead paints.
- Into the water we drink, for example from old pipes that contain Lead.
- Into the air we breathe, From unregulated smelting of lead-acid batteries and burning of e-waste.
- And even into some of the food and household goods that we consume.
From contaminated spices to cosmetics and painted toys. Once it’s in the environment, its effects are insidious and its symptoms are difficult to spot. Sometimes there are no warning signs at all until it’s too late.
The effects on the developing brains of young children are particularly severe. For pregnant women, Lead exposure can harm their unborn child and raise the risk of a range of complications. There’s no cure for Lead poisoning, Damage it causes cannot be reversed. The only solution is prevention we need to keep Lead safely away from children.
The good news is that it’s possible to eliminate the danger of Lead once and for all. But this needs support from governments, to ensure lead is eliminated from certain consumer products, such as paints, toys, ceramics, spices and cosmetics; Also It needs support from Industry, to ensure responsible manufacturing and recycling so that lead is not leaked into the environment. And the communities should be aware and look out for lead, to safely dispose of batteries and unwanted electronics, to keep children away from industrial and recycling sites and to seek testing and care If a child may have been exposed to lead.