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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) 

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:

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:

Other Adults

Adults exposed to lead can suffer from:

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:

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)


Other Heavy Metals



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.

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

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)