Safety and first aid

Lead exposure

Lead is a naturally occurring metal that has been used in many products. People can be exposed to lead in the environment when it is released into the air in dusts, food and water. Lead is mainly absorbed into the body from dietary or inhalation exposure.

Lead containing dusts and fumes may enter the surrounding environment, and contaminate water, soil, home grown vegetables or fruit. If dusts become airborne they can disperse and settle up to a kilometre away. This settled lead may then transfer from soil or surfaces to hands and food.

If absorbed into the body, lead will circulate in blood and can remain in the soft tissues and organs (e.g. kidneys, liver and brain) and is stored in bones and teeth. Repeated exposure to low levels of lead can cause it to build up in the body.

Lead interferes with red blood which can cause tiredness and shortness of breath during physical activity. Very high levels of lead outside the workplace are uncommon in Australia.

The levels of lead detected in the Australian population have been steadily decreasing since lead has been removed from paints and petrol. 

Where is lead found?

Lead can be found in:

How does lead exposure occur?

Eating food and drinking water

Very small amounts of lead can be present in food and drinking water. In  Western Australia the Water Corporation monitors the mains water supply to ensure that water quality meets the health based limits set by the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (external site).

The maximum levels of allowable lead in food are set out in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (external site) (the Code) by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).  FSANZ monitors the food supply in Australia to ensure that food regulatory measures are adequate to protect consumer health and safety.

In Australia, dietary exposure of lead from food is below the determined low risk level and has decreased over the past decade.

Food can become contaminated from hands that have been in contact with lead.


Inhalation of lead may occur when undertaking activities that create tiny lead particles and fumes, such as from heating, welding, sanding or from:

  • restoration of boats, homes, cars or furniture covered with a lead-based paint
  • pottery (glazing and firing)
  • lead casting (production of ammunition, toy soldiers and fishing sinkers)
  • burning materials that contain lead or that are covered with a lead-based coating (wood or plastics)
  • soldering
  • recycling materials containing lead or coated with lead-based products (motor vehicle bodies, car batteries, electronic equipment)
  • smoking cigarettes (elevated blood lead levels are consistently found in adults and children whose parents smoke)
  • lead lighting
  • electroplating
  • using firearms.
Who is most at risk of lead exposure?

Pregnant women

Are recommended to minimize their exposure to lead because it can cross from the mother to the baby through the placenta. Small amounts of lead can also transfer to breast milk. Pregnant or breastfeeding women need to avoid activities where they may be exposed to lead in the environment.

Young children and babies 

Young children and babies are more sensitive to the effects of lead and are likely to absorb up to 5 times more ingested lead than adults. Children can often place objects in their mouths, suck their fingers and may swallow dust and soil, making them more vulnerable to lead exposure.

People with iron and calcium deficiencies

Tend to absorb more lead and are encouraged to eat a balanced diet with adequate levels of calcium, iron, vitamin C, zinc and magnesium. Good sources of iron include poultry, red meat, liver, fish, fortified cereal, cooked beans/lentils, and green leafy vegetables. Milk, cheese and yoghurt are good sources of calcium.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Symptoms of lead exposure can be difficult to recognise. Your GP or doctor should be consulted if lead exposure is suspected.

Very high levels of lead in the blood (70-100 micrograms per decilitre (µg/dL) or greater) can cause acute lead poisoning and may occur during situations where lead is handled inappropriately or unsafely.

The absorption of very high levels of lead into the body is considered a clinical emergency and symptoms can include:

  • convulsions
  • stomach pain
  • vomiting
  • loss of consciousness and even death.

These instances are now extremely rare in Australia and there is more focus on long-term effects of ongoing exposure to low levels of lead.

Some of the long-term effects include:

  • general fatigue
  • headaches
  • anaemia
  • blood circulation problems
  • weakness in the fingers, wrists and ankles
  • reduced fertility
  • reduced kidney and brain function.

Exposure guidelines for lead and lead compounds

In May 2015 the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommended that all:

  • Australians should have a blood lead level that is not higher than 5µg/dL (micrograms per decilitre)
  • children's exposure to lead should be minimised
  • women are advised to minimise their exposure to lead both before and during pregnancy and also while breastfeeding.

In 2015, the Department of Health WA (DoH) adopted the NHMRC recommendations.

Read about how to reduce your exposure to lead.

Where to get help

  • See your doctor.
  • Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222.
  • Call the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 (24 hours a day) if you suspect poisoning.
  • For information on exposure at work contact WorkSafe Customer Help Centre on 1300 307 877 or to report an incident call 1800 678 198.
  • Contact the Environmental Health Directorate by calling (08) 9222 2000 or emailing

Last reviewed: 26-10-2023

Public Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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