Lead in the environment

Edited by:
David J. Hoffman, Barnett A. Rattner, G. Allen Burton Jr., and John Cairns Jr.



Anthropogenic uses of lead have probably altered its availability and environmental distribution more than any other toxic element. Consequently, lead concentrations in many living organisms may be approaching thresholds of toxicity for the adverse effects of lead. Such thresholds are difficult to define, as they vary with the chemical and physical form of lead, exposure regime, other elements present and also vary both within and between species. The technological capability to accurately quantify low lead concentrations has increased over the last decade, and physiological and behavioral effects have been measured in wildlife with tissue lead concentrations below those previously considered safe for humans.s.236 Consequently. lead criteria for the protection of wildlife and human health are frequently under review, and 'thresholds' of lead toxicity are being reconsidered. Proposed lead criteria for the protection of natural resources have been reviewed by Eisler. Uptake of lead by plants is limited by its generally low availability in soils and sediments, and toxicity may be limited by storage mechanisms and its apparently limited translocation within most plants. Lead does not generally accumulate within the foliar parts of plants, which limits its transfer to higher trophic levels. Although lead may concentrate in plant and animal tissues, no evidence of biomagnification exists. Acid deposition onto surface waters and soils with low buffering capacity may influence the availability of lead for uptake by plants and animals, and this may merit investigation at susceptible sites. The biological significance of chronic low-level lead exposure to wildlife is sometimes difficult to quantify. Animals living in urban environments or near point sources of lead emission are inevitably subject to greater exposure to lead and enhanced risk of lead poisoning. Increasingly strict controls on lead emissions in many countries have reduced exposure to lead from some sources. and the .reduction of lead in gasoline has resulted in lower tissue lead concentrations in humans and wildlife from many, particularly urban, locations. However, it has been suggested that increasing use of organic lead compounds as catalysts for the production of plastics and as wood preservatives and biocides could adversely affect wildlife. The most significant source of direct wildlife mortality from lead is spent gunshot and fishing sinkers. Elevated mortality from shot ingestion in avian species resulted in the introduction of nontoxic (steel) shot zones along certain flyways in the United States in the mid-1970s and a total ban on the use of lead for waterfowl and coot hunting nationwide by 1992. Several other countries are now following suit and have either banned or are in the process of restricting the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting. In the United States it has been estimated that since the 1986 hunting season. when the use of nontoxic shot became widespread. over 6 million ducks have not been lost to lead poisoning. Raptors, especially eagles, have also apparently benefited. although lead poisoning from ingestion of bullet fragments remains a problem for the critically threatened California condor. Quantifying reductions in lead mortality rates would be difficult since eagle populations throughout North America are rapidly recovering from other anthropogenic perturbations, especially organochlorine pesticides.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Book chapter
Publication Subtype:
Book Chapter
Lead in the environment
Year Published:
Lewis Publishers
Publisher location:
Boca Raton, FL
Contributing office(s):
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
36 p.
Larger Work Type:
Larger Work Subtype:
Larger Work Title:
Handbook of ecotoxicology, second edition
First page:
Last page: