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QUESTION: Project on how humans affect the environment: lead poisoning? 30/11/11 Indiana, USA - United States of America


My name is Abby. I go to Indian Creek Elementary School. I am in 6th grade, and I am doing a project on how humans affect the environment. My topic Is on lead poisoning, and I need some questions answered. Would it be possible for you to answer a few quick questions for me?

If so...

  1. What makes lead poisonous?
  2. Why do we use lead?
  3. WHO first made lead?
  4. How does lead get into the plant's system?
  5. Where do we make lead?


ANSWER: Nov 30 2011

Dear Abby,

I'm currently trying to achieve the end of leaded gasoline globally by the end of 2011 so I only have one month to go!! Thus my very brief answers to you.

  1. Lead is poisonous because the body cannot tell the difference between lead and calcium or iron or zinc. When lead is available in our environment, and we either breathe it or eat it or get it on our skin, the lead is absorbed and replaces these essential trace minerals. We need calcium and iron and zinc in every cell of our bodies and they are especially necessary for a healthy (smart) brain, heart and reproductive system. So when lead replaces these essential trace minerals in our bodies, every function of every organ is poisoned and that's why the list of possible health effects of lead is four pages long! See An old woman who had been lead poisoned as a very young child, once told me that the most helpful doctor she ever saw, explained to her that lead affects whatever is weakest in you. In her case, her eyes were weak (everyone in her family wore glasses) and lead had caused her to go blind. Lead will take away IQ points for all children who are poisoned by it, but if you come from a very smart family, you can still end up with a high IQ - it will just be less than it might have been, if you were not exposed to lead. For most lead poisoned people, lead is dangerous because it causes early death from heart attack or stroke.

  2. We use lead because it is cheap, has been mined and smelted for thousands of years (so there's a lot of it around), is recyclable (even when you die and get cremated, or if you have babies, the lead in you is recycled into the environment or into your children) and has many many attributes that make it useful, but mainly, we keep using it, despite it causing millions of deaths, because it is cheap and sadly, humans tend to put profit before people. For instance, a United Nations study has declared that using lead in gasoline has caused 1.1 million deaths globally, annually, and yet, the US company that makes the lead additive for gasoline, insists on selling it for probably another year, just so they can make more profit. Some of the many uses of lead are at  and a more detailed list is at although I hear about at least one new use of lead every year or so.

  3. According to Wikipedia, "Lead has been commonly used for thousands of years because it is widespread, easy to extract and easy to work with. It is highly malleable and ductile as well as easy to smelt. Metallic lead beads dating back to 6400 BCE have been found in Çatalhöyük in modern-day Turkey." [Ref: ] That is, so far, the first known makers of lead objects are the Chalcolithic ("Copper Age") settlers in southern Anatolia, now called Turkey.

  4. Lead is absorbed into plants from the soil when water dissolves the lead (which occurs only when the soil is acidic) the lead-contaminated water is taken up via the roots and distributed around the plant through the xylem. To reduce the uptake of lead by plants from low pH soil (acidic soil), you need to add lime to the soil and bring it to the neutral pH of 7. You should note that the most common way to accidentally eat lead when you eat plants is because lead-contaminated soil can be ON the herb or vegetable or fruit. So you can avoid lead on plants by washing plant food before you eat it or, if the soil is stuck in the cracks in the roots such as carrots or turnips, you can peel these root vegetables so you don't end up eating lead.

  5. To find out all the large facilities in the world where lead is mined and smelted and made into lead products, go to but you should note that lead is a product not only of lead mines and lead smelters, but also of zinc mines and smelters, and copper and tin and silver and gold mines and smelters. And once lead has been refined, or recycled from old car batteries or other old lead products, it can be easily heated and moulded into a huge variety of shapes, or added to other metals to make alloys which have hundreds of uses, or added to fuels or plastics or explosives or fireworks or a range of other chemicals so it is basically true to say that lead is made everywhere where laws do not protect people from it. You'll probably find that your suburb previously had a lead foundry or smelter or battery recycler, but lucky for you, these small backyard industries are now controlled in the United States and in some other Western countries. Unfortunately for all the children and adults in Africa, Asia and South America, these backyard and home kitchen operations continue to turn car battery lead into things like bottle tops for soda bottles, toys and jewellery for children, craftworks, ceramic glazes for plates and cups, paint for homes and toys, etc.

If you would like to send me a copy of the results of your research, I'd be glad to consider it for web-publication. These are good questions and it would be wonderful if more children knew the answers to them.

All the best.

Yours Sincerely

Elizabeth O'Brien

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