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Risk to Health and the Environment of the Current Use of Lead

Risk to Health and the Environment of the Current Use of Lead


   Lead  is widely used material in our society. Its applications include car batteries, sealants in the building sector, or various elements of electrical and electronic goods. It used to be applied in significant quantities as a scavenger in petrol, but, after the introduction of lead-free petrol in Europe, this application has been reduced enormously. The same applies to the use of lead in applications such as water pipes. Consequently, direct emissions and human exposure to lead have been reduced significantly. Nevertheless, there is still discussion whether exposure to lead should be further reduced.

The risk over time of the uses of lead currently remaining in Europe have been analysed in a study sponsored by the European Commission1. A recently published paper summarises the main results of this study. The researchers drew up an inventory of lead uses, trends and emissions in the EU and assessed the population's current actual exposure. The study was set up as a substance flow analysis to analyse trends in uses and emissions of lead in Europe between 2000 and 2030.

The main findings of the study are:
  • Now that major success has been attained by reducing the use of leaded petrol to zero, the overall emission pattern will be remarkably stable in the coming decades. Current emissions, mainly into soil and water, are the result of the slow corrosion of lead and will continue for some time even if the application of uses such as lead plating and lead shot, the main emission sources (after leaded petrol), are stopped immediately.

  • In order to diminish lead inflow into the food generation system, measures like minimising the use of fertilisers likely to be contaminated with lead, such as sewage sludge and compost, might be advisable.

  • It has been calculated that the average accumulation of lead is related to various uncertainties. Research to obtain an insight into the actual emissions caused by lead shot and lead sheet are recommended, in view of the rather large uncertainties in emission factors.

  • Corrosion from lead plating is the main contributor to lead pollution of sewage sludge. This source is also the main cause of emission into water. Lead contamination is one of the reasons why sewage sludge is no longer used as a fertiliser in quite a number of EU member states. Therefore, it has to be treated or landfilled. Preventive policies to clean sewage sludge should address the emissions from the use of lead as plating material in the building sector.

  • More attention needs to be paid to the waste treatment options applied to products containing lead. The residual flows from waste incineration are of special concern. These are voluminous flows like fly ash and slugs, and several EU member states prefer to re-use these materials in road building and other building products. This might result in a greater use of lead in the building sector.

  • It appears that under unfavourable conditions, young children may exceed their tolerable daily intake. Therefore, for children there is a need for further information and testing.

    The results from this study provide new insights into the health and environmental risks of using lead in products in the EU. They could be useful when forming policies on the need for further reductions in the use of this material.

    1European Commission DG Enterprise report “Risk to health and environment of the use of lead in products in the EU“, Contract no. ETD/00/503273, ec.europa.eu

    Source: : Tukker A. et al. (2006) « Risk to health and environment of the use of lead in products in the EU », Resources Conservation and Recycling 49(2): 89-109.


    ZDROJ: DG Environment

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