Loyola University Chicago

Healthy Homes & Healthy Communities

Lead & Heavy Metals


What is it?

Lead is a naturally occurring element found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. While it has some beneficial uses, it can be toxic to humans and animals causing of health effects. (EPA)

What causes it? Where is it found?

Lead can be found in all parts of our environment—the air, the soil, the water, and even inside our homes. Much of our exposure comes from human activities including the use of fossil fuels including past use of leaded gasoline, some types of industrial facilities, and past use of lead-based paint in homes. Lead and lead compounds have been used in a wide variety of products found in and around our homes, including paint, ceramics, pipes and plumbing materials, solders, gasoline, batteries, ammunition, and cosmetics. (EPA)

Lead may enter the environment from these past and current uses. Lead can also be emitted into the environment from industrial sources and contaminated sites, such as former lead smelters. While natural levels of lead in soil range between 50 and 400 parts per million, mining, smelting, and refining activities have resulted in substantial increases in lead levels in the environment, especially near mining and smelting sites. (EPA)

  • Dust—Lead dust is the most common way that children are exposed to lead. Inside the home, most lead dust comes from chipping and flaking paint or when paint is scraped, sanded, or disturbed during home remodeling. Chipping and peeling paint is found mostly on surfaces that rub or bump up against another surface. These surfaces include doors, doorframes, windows, stairs, railings, banisters, porches, fences, radiators, and pipes. Lead dust can also get into the air and settle onto other things when people vacuum, sweep, or walk through it. Most young children are exposed to lead from lead dust. Children can swallow lead dust as they eat, play, and do other normal hand-to-mouth activities. (Lead Safe Illinois)
  • Folk medicines and cosmetics—Some folk medicines contain lead. Two examples are Greta and Azarcon. Azarcon is a bright orange powder also known as Maria Luisa, Rueda, Alarcon, and Coral. Greta is a yellow powder. Azarcon and Greta are used to treat an upset stomach. Pay-loo-ah also contains lead. It is a red powder used to treat a rash or a fever. Other folk medicines that contain lead include Bala (or Bala Goli), Golf, Ghasard, Kandu, Litargirio and some Ayurvedic medicines. Some cosmetics such as Kohl (or AlKohl), Kajal, Surma and Sindoor also contain lead. More recently, the Illinois Attorney General issued a statewide product alert for Hashmi Surma Special Eye Make-up because it contains especially high levels of lead. (Lead Safe Illinois)
  • Household water—Homes built before 1986 often have lead pipes or older plumbing parts such as faucets and fittings that may contain lead. Older water well pumps made with brass or bronze parts may also contain lead. Copper pipes are now used in most homes, but lead solder may have been used to connect these pipes. While in 1986 and 1988 laws were passed to prevent the use of lead in pipes, solder, and other plumbing parts, some new brass faucets and fixtures, may still contain small amounts of lead. Lead is more likely to get into warm water that is soft or acidic. Lead gets in the body when people eat or drink food or water with lead in it. Lead in drinking water is most harmful for babies who drink formula mixed with water containing lead. (Lead Safe Illinois)
  • Lead-glazed ceramics, china, leaded crystal glassware—Lead may get into food and liquid that has been stored in lead-glazed ceramics, pottery, china, and crystal. Lead-glazed pottery usually comes from other countries. There is no way to accurately tell by just looking at a piece whether it contains dangerous amounts of lead. It is safest not to use items that may have been made with lead to store food or beverages. One can also purchase lead-testing kits (available in drugstores or by mail order). It is important to follow the specific instructions on the kit for an accurate reading. These readings, however, may not always be accurate. (Lead Safe Illinois)
  • Paint—Lead-based paint is the most dangerous source of lead in the home. Lead dust is created from opening and closing the doors or windows inside a home painted with lead-based paint. A child is exposed to small amounts of lead when he or she puts his or her mouth on toys, food, or other objects covered in lead dust. Children can be exposed to high levels of lead from soil when they put their hands or toys that have been in the soil into their mouths. They may also put plants and rocks in their mouths or eat the soil directly. (Lead Safe Illinois)
  • Soil—Before 1986, companies added lead to gasoline. Lead particles escaped from car exhaust systems and went into the air and fell onto soil near roads. The lead is still there today and often at high levels. (Lead Safe Illinois)
  • Metal smelting, battery manufacturing, and other factories still use lead. This lead gets into the air and then mixes with the soil near homes located close to one of these sources. (Lead Safe Illinois)
  • Toys and jewelry—Despite laws prohibiting the use of lead in some products, manufacturers continue to produce toys, jewelry and candy that contain lead. Some of these products use lead paint while others are lead-filled, but all are dangerous to children. (Lead Safe Illinois)
  • Workplace and hobbies—People exposed to lead at work may bring lead home on their clothes, shoes, hair, or skin. Some jobs that expose people to lead include home improvement, painting and refinishing, car or radiator repair, plumbing, construction, welding and cutting, electronics, demolition, municipal waste incineration, battery manufacturing, lead compound manufacturing, rubber products and plastics manufacturing, lead smelting and refining, working in brass or bronze foundries, and working with scrap metal. Some hobbies also use lead. These hobbies include making lead-glazed pottery and stained glass, fishing with leaded sinkers, and refinishing furniture. (Lead Safe Illinois)
  • Other common sources of lead—Antique pewter, curtain and window weights, crayons from other countries, some colors of ink, some calcium supplements, old playground equipment, fishing weights or sinkers, wheel weights, bullets and hair dyes may also contain lead. (Lead Safe Illinois)
  • Food cans—In 1995 the United States banned the use of lead solder on cans. But lead solder can still be found on cans made in other countries that are sold in the U.S. These cans are usually made from three pieces soldered together. The cans usually have wide seams. The silver-gray solder along the seams contains the lead. Cans containing lead may be imported into the U.S. and sold. Over time, the lead gets into the food. This happens faster after the can has been opened. Foods that are acidic are more likely to absorb lead. (Lead Safe Illinois)
  • Other food items—Many commonly found treats may contain lead. There are some candies from Mexico that contain lead. (Lead Safe Illinois)
  • Mini-blinds—Some non-glossy, vinyl mini-blinds from other countries contain lead. To detect lead, purchase a home testing kit (available in hardware stores or by mail order/online.) It is important to follow all testing kit instructions, and note that some testing kits' results may not be accurate. (Lead Safe Illinois)

How does it affect health?

Lead can affect almost every organ and system in your body. Children six years old and younger are most susceptible to the effects of lead. (EPA)


Even low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in:

  • Behavior and learning problems
  • Lower IQ and Hyperactivity
  • Slowed growth
  • Hearing Problems
  • Anemia

In rare cases, ingestion of lead can cause seizures, coma and even death.

Pregnant Women

Lead can accumulate in our bodies over time, where it is stored in bones along with calcium. During pregnancy, lead is released from bones as maternal calcium and is used to help form the bones of the fetus. This is particularly true if a woman does not have enough dietary calcium. Lead can also cross the placental barrier exposing the fetus the lead.

This can result in serious effects to the mother and her developing fetus, including:

  • Reduced growth of the fetus
  • Premature birth

Other Adults

Adults exposed to lead can suffer from:

  • Cardiovascular effects, increased blood pressure and incidence of hypertension
  • Decreased kidney function
  • Reproductive problems (in both men and women)

What local (city and state) policies are in place to regulate and/or prevent this toxin?

The Lead Poisoning Prevention Act of 2006 sets out measures that will help prevent children from becoming poisoned. These measures:

  • Requiring lead inspections in units and common areas of buildings when a child under three years of age has a lead level lower than the level that currently triggers an inspection, and
  • Requiring products children use, eat, or wear to be lead-safe.
  • Target properties and property owners most likely to have lead hazards by:
    • Prohibiting residential property owners who have willfully and knowingly failed to comply with a mitigation order from doing business with the State or State agencies for a period of time, and
    • Allowing the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) to inspect common areas of residential buildings when two or more units within a five-year period have had mitigation notices issued, and requiring lead inspections when a parent or guardian of a child under six, or a pregnant woman residing in the same building requests an inspection. The bill requires IDPH to consider the owner's financial ability to complete the repairs when establishing a time frame for the work.
  • Educate the public about lead poisoning by:
    • Requiring signs be posted or brochures distributed about lead-safe work practices in stores where supplies intended for paint removal are sold,
    • Requiring families with children in day care facilities be provided information on lead poisoning, and
    • Requiring notices be posted in common areas of buildings when a child has been poisoned in one of the units, until the hazards are removed.
  • Hold stakeholders accountable for preventing lead poisoning by:
    • Coordinating data between IDPH and Illinois Department of Heath and Family Safety,
    • Adding penalties for failure to comply with existing laws and amendments in Health Bill 4853, and
    • Requiring state agencies responsible for prosecuting lead poisoning cases to report annually to the General Assembly the number of referrals from the IDPH for prosecution. (Lead Safe Illinois)

What interventions are effective?

Simple steps like keeping your home clean and well-maintained will go a long way in preventing lead exposure. You can lower the chances of exposure to lead in your home, both now and in the future, by taking these steps: (EPA)

  • Inspect and maintain all painted surfaces to prevent paint deterioration.
  • Address water damage quickly and completely.
  • Keep your home clean and dust-free.
  • Clean around painted areas where friction can generate dust, such as doors, windows, and drawers. Wipe these areas with a wet sponge or rag to remove paint chips or dust.
  • Use only cold water to prepare food and drinks.
  • Flush water outlets used for drinking or food preparation.
  • Clean debris out of outlet screens or faucet aerators on a regular basis.
  • Wash children's hands, bottles, pacifiers and toys often.
  • Teach children to wipe and remove their shoes and wash hands after playing outdoors.
  • Ensure that your family members eat well-balanced meals. Children with healthy diets absorb less lead.
  • If you are having home renovation, repairs, or painting done, make sure your contractor is Lead-Safe Certified, and make sure they follow lead safe work practices. (EPA)



What is it?

Metallic Mercury is a dense liquid that vaporizes easily at room temperature. Metallic mercury is not easily absorbed into unbroken skin. (ATSDR)

Mercury vapors are colorless and odorless, though they can be seen with the aid of an ultraviolet light. (ATSDR)

Mercury combines with other elements, such as chlorine, sulfur, or oxygen, to form inorganic mercury compounds or “salts”, which are usually white powders or crystals. Mercury also combines with carbon to make organic mercury compounds. The most common one, methylmercury, is produced mainly by microscopic organisms in the water and soil. More mercury in the environment can increase the amounts of methylmercury these small organisms make. (ATSDR)

Where is it found?

Metallic mercury is used to produce chlorine gas and caustic soda, and is also used in thermometers, dental fillings, and batteries. Mercury salts are sometimes used in skin lightening creams and as antiseptic creams and ointments. (ATSDR)

Exposure to mercury occurs from breathing contaminated air, ingesting contaminated water and food, and having dental and medical treatments. (ATSDR)

Methylmercury builds up in the tissues of fish. Larger and older fish tend to have the highest levels of mercury. (ATSDR)

What causes it?

Inorganic mercury (metallic mercury and inorganic mercury compounds) enters the air from mining ore deposits, burning coal and waste, and from manufacturing plants. (ATSDR)

Mercury enters the water or soil from natural deposits, disposal of wastes, and volcanic activity. (ATSDR)

How does it affect health?

The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury.

  • Methylmercury and metallic mercury vapors are more harmful than other forms, because more mercury in these forms reaches the brain. (ATSDR)

Mercury, at high levels, may damage the brain, kidneys and developing fetus. (ATSDR)

  • Effects on brain functioning may result in irritability, shyness, tremors, changes in vision or hearing, and memory problems. (ATSDR)
  • Mercury in the mother’s body passes to the fetus and may accumulate there. Mercury’s harmful effects that may be passed from the mother to the fetus include brain damage, mental retardation, incoordination, blindness, seizures, and inability to speak. Children poisoned by mercury may develop problems of their nervous and digestive systems, and kidney damage. (ATSDR)
  • It can also pass to a nursing infant through breast milk. However, the benefits of breast feeding may be greater than the possible adverse effects of mercury in breast milk. (ATSDR)

Short-term exposure to high levels of metallic mercury vapors may cause effects including lung damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, increases in blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes, and eye irritation. (ATSDR)

The EPA has determined that mercuric chloride and methylmercury are possible human carcinogens. (ATSDR)

What local (city and state) policies are in place to regulate and/or prevent this toxin?

The EPA has set a limit of 2 parts of mercury per billion parts of drinking water (2 ppb). (ATSDR)

The FDA has set a maximum permissible level of 1 part of methylmercury in a million parts of seafood (1 ppm). (ATSDR)

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set limits of 0.1 milligrams of organic mercury per cubic meter of workplace air (0.1 mg/m3) and 0.5 mg/m3 of metallic mercury vapor for 8-hour shifts and 40-hour work weeks. (ATSDR)

Several laws have been enacted in Illinois that regulate mercury-containing products by limiting or prohibiting mercury content in certain products. The purpose of banning mercury-containing products is to eliminate non-essential uses of mercury, thereby reducing the potential for mercury being released during the production, use and disposal of products. (IEPA)

  • Beginning July 1, 2004, the sale and distribution of mercury fever thermometers is prohibited, including those provided in hospital new baby gift packs. The law exempts mercury fever thermometers sold to, or used in, a health care facility. (IEPA)
  • Beginning July 1, 2004, no mercury-added novelties may be sold or distributed for promotional purposes, unless the mercury is solely within a button-cell battery or fluorescent light bulb. Novelty items include toys, figurines, adornments, games, cards, ornaments, yard statues and figurines, candles, jewelry, holiday decorations, shoes and other items of apparel. (IEPA)
  • Beginning July 1, 2005, the purchase or acceptance of bulk mercury, mercury containing compounds and mercury-containing instructional equipment for use in primary or secondary classrooms is prohibited. An exemption is provided for mercury-containing measuring devices used as teaching aids, if no adequate mercury-free alternative exists. (IEPA)
  • Beginning June 1, 2009, sale and distribution of cosmetics, toiletries, or fragrances containing mercury is prohibited. Any person who knowingly sells or distributes mercury-containing cosmetics, toiletries, or fragrances in Illinois is guilty of a petty offense. (IEPA)

What interventions are effective?

Carefully handle and dispose of products that contain mercury, such as thermometers or fluorescent light bulbs. Do not vacuum up spilled mercury, because it will vaporize and increase exposure. If a large amount of mercury has spilled, contact your health department. Teach children not to play with shiny, silver liquids. (ATSDR)

Tests are available to measure mercury levels in the body. Blood or urine samples are used to test for exposure to metallic mercury and to inorganic forms of mercury. Mercury in whole blood or in scalp hair is measured to determine exposure to methylmercury. (ATSDR)



What is it?

Cadmium is a natural element in the earth’s crust. (ATSDR)

Where is it found?

Cadmium is usually found as a mineral combined with other elements such as oxygen (cadmium oxide), chlorine (cadmium chloride), or sulfur (cadmium sulfate, cadmium sulfide). (ATSDR)

All soil and rocks, including coal and mineral fertilizers, contain some cadmium. Most cadmium used in the United States is extracted during the production of other metals like zinc, lead, and copper. Cadmium does not corrode easily and has many uses, including batteries, pigments, metal coatings, and plastics. (ATSDR)

What causes it?

Exposure to cadmium happens mostly in the workplace where cadmium products are made. The general population is exposed from breathing cigarette smoke or eating cadmium contaminated foods. (ATSDR)

Cadmium enters soil, water, and air from mining, industry, and burning coal and household wastes. Cadmium particles in air can travel long distances before falling to the ground or water. Some forms of cadmium dissolve in water and cadmium binds strongly to soil particles. Fish, plants, and animals take up cadmium from the environment. (ATSDR)

How does it affect health?

Breathing high levels of cadmium can severely damage the lungs. Eating food or drinking water with very high levels severely irritates the stomach, leading to vomiting and diarrhea. (ATSDR)

Long-term exposure to lower levels of cadmium in air, food, or water leads to a buildup of cadmium in the kidneys and possible kidney disease. Other long-term effects are lung damage and fragile bones. (ATSDR)

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have determined that cadmium and cadmium compounds are human carcinogens. The EPA determined that cadmium is a probable human carcinogen (group B1). (ATSDR)

What local (city and state) policies are in place to regulate and/or prevent this toxin?

The EPA has determined that exposure to cadmium in drinking water at concentrations of 0.04 milligrams per liter (0.04 mg/L) for up to 10 days is not expected to cause any adverse effects in a child. (ATSDR)

The FDA has determined that the cadmium concentration in bottled drinking water should not exceed 0.005 mg/L. (ATSDR)

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has limited workers' exposure to an average of 5 micrograms/cubic meter for an 8-hour workday, 40-hour workweek. (ATSDR)

What interventions are effective?

Do not allow children to play with batteries. Dispose of nickel-cadmium batteries properly. (ATSDR)

Cadmium is a component of tobacco smoke. Avoid smoking and smoking in enclosed spaces like inside the home or car in order to limit exposure to children and other family members. (ATSDR)

If you work with cadmium, use all safety precautions to avoid carrying cadmium-containing dust home from work on your clothing, skin, hair, or tools. (ATSDR)

Cadmium can be measured in blood, urine, hair, or nails. Urinary cadmium has been shown to accurately reflect the amount of cadmium in the body. (ATSDR)

  • The amount of cadmium in your blood shows your recent exposure to cadmium. The amount of cadmium in your urine shows both your recent and your past exposure. (ATSDR)