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 96% since 1990. The largest source of lead until 1999 was from anti-knock lead additives in petrol. The use of leaded petrol contributed 73% of UK lead emissions in 1990, but leaded petrol was phased out from general sale at the end of 1999, and, consequently emissions from petrol decreased so that the contribution from 2000 onwards was just 0.5% of UK emissions. Lead emissions from tyre and brake wear were estimated for the first time in 2019, using emission factors provided in the 2016 EMEP/EEA Guidebook. In 2021, the major sources of lead were tyre and brake wear, which now accounts for 30% of the national total, and iron and steel production, with 32% of emissions. There has, however, been a significant reduction in emissions from iron and steel production, at least in part due to declining production, and emissions from iron and steel production in 2021 were 39% lower than in 1990. Emissions have also declined as a result of the decreasing use of coal.

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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
1990 2017 Automotive tyre and brake wear The major revisions are mainly due to inclusion of tyre and brake wear (1A3bvi) emissions for the first time, using emission factors provided in the EMEP/EEA 2016 EMEP/ EEA Guidebook Increase in emissions

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