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Lead, symbol Pb, known as plumbum in Latin, is a heavy metal. It is element number 82 in the Periodic Table. It is the heaviest element that has stable isotopes. Ingesting it causes numerous neurological problems,[1] hence it has slowly been removed from everything it used to be used in.[2] European Union ROHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive) standards now prohibit its use entirely, meaning that the Chinese have to put all their lead in US-bound toys, toothpaste and Soylent.

Inorganic lead compounds as well as lead subacetate, lead chromate, and lead phosphate are carcinogenic in animal studies; there is insufficient information to evaluate lead carcinogenicity in humans.[3] Lead can cause a wide range of health problems in humans from both acute exposure (e.g., constipation, memory loss, loss of appetite) and chronic exposure (e.g., forgetfulness, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease and infertility).[4] In children, it has been estimated to cause 600,000 new cases of intellectual disabilities each year worldwide.[5] Worldwide, it is estimated to cause 143,000 deaths per year.[5]

In pseudoscience[edit]

Lead and tin are used in molybdomancy, a type of divination involving pouring molten metal into water.

In traditional Chinese medicine, lead is supposed to be good for detoxing (you read that right), malaria, ringworm, skin rashes, rosacea, eczema, sores, ulcers, and killing intestinal parasites, among other things.[6] It's also used in Ayurvedic medicine.

Lead is also used around the world as a folk remedy for things like upset stomach, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, colic and teething.[7][8]

In gasoline[edit]

The lead compound tetraethylleadWikipedia's W.svg was used as an additive to gasoline from the 1920s until the 1980s. Its contribution to pollution of the air and soil in cities and around motorways, combined with its incompatibility with catalytic converters, caused it to be phased out.

Other uses[edit]

Spreading the toxicity around

Quite possibly the most widespread use of lead today is in the form of the lead sulphate electrodes that are a crucial component of wet-cell batteries, which thanks to this use, are known informally as "lead-acid batteries", of the type found in many cars. Lead acid batteries have many advantages, among them their dirt cheap base materials, but are increasingly replaced due to their downsides like high weight and low energy density.

Lead was used in paint since the time of the ancient Romans (4th century BCE), and the process of making the paint was described by Pliny the Elder. In the United States, it has been banned from household paints since 1978 due to its toxicity.

Because it's soft, dense, and relatively cheap, it's good for making bullets.

It's also used for those little weights they add to your wheels whenever you get new tires, to balance them.

It is/was also used for those other little weights attached to fishing-lines to pull the bait and hook down into deeper waters.

Because of its density (and cheapness), it's great for shielding against radiation.

The Romans made their pipes out of lead, thus "plumbing". While new lead plumbing is not produced anymore some pipes made of lead are still in the ground or old houses. While this usually does not cause problems due to a protective coating on the inside of the pipes, if the chemical properties of the water change and attack the coating, lead may leach into the water causing tremendous long term damage to all who drink the water. This is what happened in Flint, Michigan, after the water source was switched to the Flint River.

Romans also used lead as an artificial sweetener. Really, it's a wonder they survived as long as they did.[9]

The Ancient Egyptians used lead in various types of cosmetics.[10]

Despite its name, "pencil lead" hasn't been made out of lead in, like, forever. Today's pencil "leads" are graphite (crystalline carbon, once called "Plumbago") bound together with a little bit of clay. So anyone who cautions you about contracting lead poisoning from pencils is someone you probably don't want to take advice from in other areas.

At least 98% of lead in use today gets recycled, more than any other non-alloyed metal.

Zeppelins. Nah, that'll never work. But you never know.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. See: “America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead” Mother Jones. Summed up by The Straight Dope: "The gist is that violent crime in the U.S., which rose sharply after 1960 and plummeted after 1990, tracked closely with per capita use of lead in gasoline, offset by 23 years. In other words, kids whose heads were messed up by high exposure to lead in infancy went on to become violent criminals as adults."
  2. Those wacky Romans
  3. International Agency for Research on Cancer: Inorganic and Organic Lead Compounds
  4. Information for Workers: Health Problems Caused by Lead Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  5. 5.0 5.1 Lead poisoning and health World Health Organizations
  6. Galena, Acupuncture Today.
  7. Folk Medicine
  8. Managing Elevated Blood Lead Levels Among Young Children, pages 120-122.
  9. Lead Poisoning and Rome Encyclopædia Romana by James Grout (1997-2017)
  10. Personal Hygiene and Cosmetics, reshafim.org.il.