Lead - information sheet 

Updated July 3, 2020

Lead is a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999), and has been subject to numerous federal risk management activities since the 1970's. In 2013, the Federal Government published the Risk Management Strategy for Lead which outlined its preventive actions toward the reduction of risks posed by lead. Afterwards, the Government conducted an assessment of whether the risk management actions were effective in meeting the objective to reduce exposures to lead, and in 2020, summarized the results in a publication of the Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Risk Management Measures for Lead. This information sheet provides background information associated with lead, and communicates progress outlined in the performance evaluation.

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About this substance

  • Lead was one of the first substances added to the List of Toxic Substances in Schedule 1 of CEPA 1988, based on the acknowledgement that there was sufficient international evidence of harm to human health and the environment to warrant action to reduce risks associated with this substance.
  • Lead is found naturally in rock and soil. It can also be released into the environment through human (anthropogenic) activities such as mining, smelting and refining of base metals and steel manufacturing. Because of these natural and human-made sources, lead can be found throughout the environment in Canada, in air, bodies of water, and soil, as well as in food and drinking water.

Human and ecological exposures

  • Humans are most often exposed to lead through food and drinking water. This can be augmented by living near an industrial source or contaminated area, the use of products containing lead such as lead crystalware (glassware that contains lead), costume jewellery and art supplies, and exposure to lead in plumbing or house paint.
  • For infants and children, because of hand-to-mouth behaviours, ingestion of non-food items contaminated with lead such as household dust, lead-based paint, soil, and consumer products, along with dietary intake through food and water, are the greatest sources of environmental exposure to lead.
  • Canada's human biomonitoring programs and environmental monitoring and surveillance activities provide essential information to determine trends in the exposure of Canadians' and their environment to lead.
  • Specific to the environment, lead is monitored in environmental media in Canada, and also in fish and wildlife which are exposed to lead through these media.

Key health and ecological effects (hazard)

  • Lead still poses some risks to human health in Canada and Canada's environment.
  • In humans, exposure to lead is associated with harmful effects on the brain, heart, and kidneys, and to reproduction. While lead can be harmful to people of all ages, infants and children, and pregnant women and the fetus, are especially susceptible to lead exposure. Infants and children are most at risk because of their developing brains.
  • Lead has also been shown to be toxic to birds, fish and aquatic life, invertebrates, plants, and animals that live in soil.

Preventive actions and reducing risk

  • Over many years, the Government of Canada has worked to protect Canadians and the Canadian environment from the harmful effects of lead. In 2013, the Federal Government published the Risk Management Strategy for Lead which outlined its preventive actions to reduce risks posed by lead, followed by the Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Risk Management Measures for Lead, in 2020. This performance evaluation evaluates the overall performance of risk management instruments for lead and whether progress has been made in achieving the main objective of protecting Canadians and their environment.
  • Specific risk management undertaken by the Government of Canada has involved regulatory and other measures focusing on mining, smelting and refining of base metals, steel manufacturing, consumer products, drinking water, food, natural health products, therapeutic products, tobacco, and various environmental media, including household dust, soil and air.
  • The performance evaluation concludes that these risk management measures have greatly contributed to the overall objectives of protecting Canadians and their environment from lead. Specifically:
    • Progress has been made in reducing releases of lead to the environment from human activities. Over the past decade-or-so, Canadian releases of lead to air decreased by 30%, to water by 44%, and to land by 56%. These substantial reductions in releases of lead have been achieved through numerous federal risk management measures focused on various industrial and other sectors.
    • Lead concentrations in the environment have declined over time. Monitoring data show that, overall, the amount of lead in air has declined since 2009, and that lead concentrations are not a concern in the water at any of the long-term monitoring sites. Regarding wildlife, some species show decreased exposure to lead, while others show higher exposure, some of this possibly due to the continued use of lead sinkers and jigs for fishing and lead shot for hunting.
    • Canadians' exposure to lead has been reduced. Considerable progress has been made in minimizing human exposure to lead through federal risk management measures focused on consumer products, foods, and other sources. Canadians' dietary exposure to lead from foods sold in Canada decreased by approximately 8 fold between 1981 and 2000 and has remained at low, stable levels since that time. Human biomonitoring studies continue to show a downward trend for blood lead levels in the general Canadian population, confirming that exposures are steadily decreasing. Between the 1970s and 2007, blood lead levels in the general Canadian population declined by over 70%. Similarly, from 2007 to 2017, there was a statistically significant decline in general population lead levels. In addition, exposure to lead in northern Canadian communities is also decreasing.

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