National Pollutant Release Inventory Substance Overview: Lead
Every year, businesses, institutions and other facilities across Canada must report their releases and disposals of pollutants to air, water and land to the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI). The publicly available information helps governments set environmental priorities and monitor environmental performance. It also provides Canadians with an opportunity to learn about pollution in their neighbourhoods.
Lead (Pb) is part of the NPRI’s Substance Overview Series. This substance overview explores releases, disposals and transfers of lead that are reported to the NPRI by various industries in Canada. It also summarizes what facilities do to mitigate their environmental impacts.
Lead – Background
Lead (Pb) is a heavy metal that occurs naturally in the Earth's crust. It has many industrial uses. The extensive use of lead has resulted in its widespread presence in the environment.
The largest global market for refined lead is for the production of batteries, particularly for the automotive industry.
Lead is also used in the manufacture of a number of materials, including:
- sinkers and jigs
- circuit boards
- electrical components
- paint primers for iron and steel
Since the 1970s, lead has been phased out of gasoline, household paints and as solder in food cans.
Effects of Lead – Health
Canadians are exposed to low levels of lead through food, drinking water, air, household dust, soil and various other products. Before leaded gasoline was phased out in Canada, lead in the air was the main source of exposure for Canadians. Workplace exposure to lead, as well as living near a source, can also add to overall exposure.
Lead may be harmful to people of all ages; however, the strongest evidence is related to children’s intellectual development, most commonly observed as reduced IQ scores. There is no known safe level of exposure for this effect. Children with IQ scores in the lower range of normal may be especially vulnerable to developing an intellectual disability as a result of exposure to lead. In all humans, low levels of lead exposure may cause a small increase in blood pressure.
Higher levels of lead exposure may damage the brain, heart and kidneys, and may affect the ability to reproduce. Inorganic lead compounds have been classified as probably carcinogenic to humans; however, cancer is not considered the main health concern of exposure to lead.
In 2013, Health Canada conducted an assessment of the most current science on lead and consolidated the information in the Final Human Health State of the Science Report on Lead (PDF) and in the Risk Management Strategy for Lead (PDF).
Effects of Lead – Environment
Lead is released both naturally from rocks and soil and unnaturally by humans when we make and use products or fuel sources that contain lead.
- The main causes of lead in the air are smelting and refining of ore, as well as air transportation.
- Lead can also be released to water from the use of lead-containing products, such as fishing sinkers and jigs, and from industrial wastewater systems.
- The use of leaded ammunition is the biggest contributor to lead releases to land.
When human activities cause lead concentrations to be higher than those normally found in the environment, it may be harmful to plants and animals. The effects of lead on animals are similar to the effects on humans.
Effects of Lead - Socio-Economic
Lead exposure in Canada may lead to a variety of socioeconomic costs:
- Reducing the effectiveness of the workforce
- Increasing medical costs
- Other impacts of poor health on quality of life
The strongest evidence is related to children's intellectual development, most commonly observed as reduced IQ scores even at low levels of exposure. These IQ changes can affect professional development and lifetime earnings. The estimated range of the impact is from $1.5 billion to $9.4 billion (2010 Canadian dollars) per year.
Facilities that Report Releases of Lead to the NPRI
Facility owners and operators must report pollutant releases from activities at their facility if these releases are above a certain threshold. A facility must also indicate the primary activity that occurs at the site in order to identify the industrial sector to which the facility belongs.
Lead is considered a Part 1B substance for the NPRI. These substances may have significant environmental and human health impacts at relatively low levels.
For more information on reporting requirements, consult our resources and guides.
In 2019, 575 facilities reported releases, disposals or transfers of lead to the NPRI; 432 of these facilities reported releases. These covered several different industrial sectors, with Mining and Quarrying being the most frequent (with 93 facilities).
The Other category in this map include:
- Wood Products
- Oil and Gas Extraction
- Oil and Gas Pipelines and Storage
- and Aluminum.
For tips on how to use and understand NPRI data, please see our guide on using and interpreting NPRI data.
Location of NPRI facilities that release lead by sector in 2019
Total Releases of Lead
In 2019, 204,512 kg of lead were released by facilities that reported to the NPRI. This represents a 46% decrease from 2010 levels (380,208 kg).
Releases of lead by NPRI facilities to all media, 2019
Releases to Air
In 2019, 90,952 kg of lead were released to air by facilities that reported to the NPRI. This represents a 42% decrease from 2010 levels (175,629 kg).
Base metals smelting is the largest sector contributing to air emissions of lead. Base metals smelting facilities release particulate matter (or particles) containing lead into the air. The Government of Canada has been working to reduce the amount of lead released by this sector since the mid-1970s. For example, the Government of Canada published a Notice requiring the implementation of pollution prevention plans for specific toxic substances released from base metals smelters and refineries. This resulted in a 46% decline in lead releases from the sector between 2005 and 2015.
Since the Pollution Prevention (P2) Notice has ended, there are now Environmental Performance Agreements in place between Environment and Climate Change Canada and the companies within the base metals sector. These agreements are in place until 2025.
The highest releases of lead to air are located in Quebec and Ontario. This is in part because of the greater presence of base metal producing facilities in these two provinces.
Releases of lead by NPRI facilities to air, 2019
Releases to Land
In 2019, 103,733 kg of lead were released to land by facilities that reported to the NPRI. This represents a 44% decrease from 2010 levels (185,713 kg).
Spent ammunition is the largest contributor to lead releases to land. As such, the largest emitters of lead to land are Department of National Defence military training ranges.
There are about 1,025 shooting ranges across Canada that release an estimated 5,000 tonnes of lead per year in non-military activities. Many of these releases of lead to land are not reported to the NPRI because private, recreational ranges often do not meet the reporting requirements or simply do not monitor their discharges. The majority of this lead is never recovered and thus enters the environment. In addition, hunters shooting throughout the Canadian bush in a scattered and untraceable way release an estimated 40 to 80 tonnes of lead per year.
Releases of lead by NPRI facilities to land, 2019
Releases to Water
In 2019, 9,787 kg of lead was released to water by facilities that reported to the NPRI. This represents a 48% decrease from 2010 levels (18,865 kg).
In 2014, 145,712 kg of lead were released to water. This spike was caused by a mining incident, which saw the breach of the tailings pond release millions of cubic metres of tailings into the environment. This copper and gold mine, located in the Cariboo region of British Columbia, ceased operations following the event. In total, 134,235 kg of lead were released to bodies of water, including Quesnel Lake.
Not all lead releases to water are from facilities. Around 460 tonnes of lead are released into Canadian waterways from fishing activities (PDF), through the loss of lead sinkers and jigs.
Releases of lead by NPRI facilities to water, 2019
In 2019, 24,739,847 kg of lead were disposed of by facilities that reported to the NPRI. This represents a 33% decrease from 2010 levels (30,581,174 kg).
The majority of lead quantities reported to the NPRI are disposals within the tailings and waste rock category and belong to the mining sector. Tailings are the byproducts that remain following the extraction and recovery of valuable minerals from mine operations. The overall quantities of lead can be high due to the large volume of material extracted or processed during mining operations.
The management of tailings is a key component in the design and operation of mining projects in Canada. The objective of tailings management is to confine the mine tailings and provide for their safe, long-term disposal. Tailings are generally disposed of on-site in areas confined by engineered structures, such as dams or berms, or by using the natural features of the mine site such as valleys, hillsides or depressions. Tailings can also be used to back fill underground mine workings.
For more information on this topic, view our metal ore mining sector overview.
Disposals of lead by NPRI facilities, 2019
Transfers for Treatment and Recycling
In 2019, 34,797,784 kg of lead were transferred off-site for treatment or recycling by facilities that reported to the NPRI. This represents a 21% decrease from 2010 levels (44,005,475 kg).
The majority of this lead was transferred off-site for recycling and belongs to the industrial sector Metals (except aluminum, iron and steel).
Transfer of lead for recycling by NPRI facilities, 2019
The Government of Canada has implemented a wide range of regulatory and non-regulatory initiatives, in collaboration with provincial and territorial governments, industry and other stakeholders, as part of a comprehensive Risk Management Strategy for Lead. Actions taken have affected, and continue to influence, the mining, fuel and transport sectors, consumer products, drinking water quality, and food.
Additionally, the drinking water guideline for lead was revised in 2019, and resulted in the lowering of the maximum acceptable concentration to 5 µg/L. Through risk management actions already in place, the levels of lead in the blood of Canadians have declined by over 75% since the 1970s.
Concentrations of lead in the environment increased significantly following the Industrial Revolution, and most dramatically since the 1920s, following the introduction of lead additives in automobile gasoline. Lead was added to gasoline to prevent auto-ignition of the fuel (or knocking). Between 1973 and 1985, airborne lead concentrations fell considerably due to the increased use of unleaded gasoline. This was because of general concerns over toxicity and because newer, cleaner vehicle exhaust systems did not function properly with leaded gasoline.
The 1990 Gasoline Regulations officially limit the lead and phosphorus content of gasoline that is produced, imported or sold in Canada. Gasoline is now 99.8% lead-free. Exemptions exist for leaded gasoline used in racing vehicles and aircrafts.
See a complete list of regulations and management actions for lead.
Lead in Consumer Products
There are ongoing comprehensive efforts in Canada (and elsewhere) to manufacture products with replacements for lead, thereby minimizing or eliminating the presence of lead in these products. There are regulations in place through the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act (PDF) for many consumer products, Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (PDF), Migratory Birds Convention Act and Canada National Parks Act.
Regulations (Migratory Bird Regulations) exist to ban lead shot for hunting most migratory game birds throughout Canada; however, these regulations do not cover all migratory birds and there are no laws against using lead ammunition for hunting and short sporting activities.
There are various non-toxic alternatives for lead ammunition, with copper bullets and steel shot being the most commonly used. Lead-free alternatives provide equivalent shooting performance when compared to traditional lead-based ammunition, although at a slightly higher cost. Environment and Climate Change Canada commissioned a study that gathered use patterns, socio-economic factors, cost and environmental release information for lead ammunition and non-lead alternatives. The Government of Canada encourages people to use non-lead ammunition and shot when hunting for food since game meat containing lead fragments and consumed by children could have an impact on their intelligence and development.
Environment and Climate Change Canada and Health Canada will continue to periodically and systematically measure the progress made in protecting human health and the environment from the risks of lead through a new initiative called Substance Based Performance Measurement.
Recognizing the advantages of collaborative activities regarding risk assessment and management of lead, the Government of Canada is actively engaged in a number of relevant regional and bilateral programs. These include the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (PDF) and the Aarhus Protocol on Heavy Metals.
Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement
The Great Lakes are shared by Canada and the United States and are vital to the well-being of millions of people. These Lakes:
- contain almost 20% of the world's surface freshwater
- sustain 4,000 species of plants and animals
- are the basis for billions of dollars in economic activity
- provide drinking water for tens of millions of Canadians and Americans.
The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the United States was first signed in 1972 and was modernized in 2012. It identifies shared priorities and actions needed to restore and protect the Great Lakes.
Under the Chemicals of Mutual Concern Annex, Canada and the United States commited to developing strategies that include research, monitoring and surveillance actions, as well as pollution prevention and other control mechanisms for harmful chemicals. Lead is assessed across a series of different environmental indicators.
Aarhus Protocol on Heavy Metals
Under the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, the Aarhus Protocol on Heavy Metals was adopted in 1998. One of its primary obligations requires parties to reduce their emissions of lead, cadmium and mercury below 1990 levels. By 2016, Canada had achieved an 87% reduction in lead emissions from the reference year.
Canada meets its annual reporting requirement under the Protocol through the NPRI.
Facilities can do a number of things to prevent pollution and waste at the source. Examples of Pollution Prevention (P2) activities that facilities have used to target lead include:
- materials substitution to reduce the use of lead-based pigments
- recovery, re-use or recycling of lead-containing waste
- equipment, process or product design modifications to reduce the use of lead
- biological testing of employee blood lead levels
Learn more about Pollution Prevention and how facilities and individuals can help protect the environment.
Pollution in your Neighbourhood
You can identify the facilities and pollutants in your community by exploring the various data products located on the NPRI webpage.
For further analysis, check out other NPRI maps and datasets. You can also use NPRI data to do your own analysis.
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