Pollutant Information: Lead 

About Lead

Category: Heavy metals and base cations

Lead is a very toxic element and can cause a variety of symptoms at low concentrations. Lead dust or fumes can irritate the eyes on contact, as well as causing irritation to the nose and throat on inhalation. Acute exposure can lead to loss of appetite, weight loss, stomach upsets, nausea and muscle cramps. High levels of acute exposure may also cause brain and kidney damage. Chronic exposure can lead to effects on the blood, kidneys, central nervous system and vitamin D metabolism. Emissions have declined by 98% since 1990. The largest source of lead until 1999 was from anti-knock lead additives in petrol. From just before 1990, sales of unleaded petrol increased, particularly as a result of the increased use of cars fitted with three-way catalysts. Leaded petrol was then phased out from general sale at the end of 1999, and, consequently a decline in emissions from the road transport sector is seen. In 2014, the major sources of lead were steel production and combustion of waste oils and solid fuels by industry. There has, however, been a significant reduction in emissions from metal production, at least in part due to declining production, and from power stations due to improved abatement of dust emissions. Emissions have also declined as a result of the decreasing use of coal.

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» View Lead mapping data

Time series graph


Notable events

Start year End year Sector Information Impact
1984 1999 Road Transport Reduction of lead and eventual ban on Lead in petrol and development of engines that can run on lead free fuel. Decrease in emissions
1999 2011 Production Processes Tightening emission controls for the chemical industry under IPPC enforced by the Environment Agency and Defra. Decrease in emissions