Scottish Trace Element & Micronutrient Reference Laboratory

Scotland's specialised laboratory for trace elements and vitamins in health and disease


Beam Engine

Lead mining in Southern Scotland. The beam engine at the former lead mine in Wanlockhead, c. 1900. This now forms part of the Lead Mining Museum. Photograph by courtesy of the Wanlockhead Museum Trust.

Inorganic lead compounds have been known to be a toxic hazard for many hundreds of years. Control of lead exposure at work is covered by regulations which stipulate regular blood lead monitoring. Environmental exposure to lead has reduced considerably with the introduction of lead-free petrol, removal of lead from paint, reduction of lead in potable water supplies, removal of lead plumbing, and treatment of water to reduce plumbosolvency. Nevertheless, lead poisoning can still occur, usually as a result of occupational exposure. The intestinal absorption of lead in children is more efficient than adults and lead poisoning can result from ingestion of old paint flakes, which may contain high concentrations of lead.

Lead poisoning may occur in various ethnic populations following ingestion of traditional remedies or application of eye cosmetics. This is the commonest form of lead poisoning in children. Investigation of lead isotopes may be useful in investigating suspected cases. Blood lead measurement provides a reliable guide to lead exposure; the industrial action limit, which is legally binding, is currently 2.90 µmol/L (60 µg/100 mL). Lead inhibits several enzymes in the haem cycle and so concentrations of several porphyrins increase especially when blood lead exceeds 2.0 µmol/L. Zinc protoporphyrin can be measured as an alternative marker although this analyte also falls in patients with iron deficiency anaemia. At about this concentration other effects may result such as fatigue, depression, irritability, cognitive impairment, headaches and constipation. More severe poisoning may cause anaemia, renal tubular dysfunction and peripheral neuropathy.

The measurement of urinary lead is only recommended for monitoring of chelation therapy or for assessment of exposure to alkyl-leads.

More Information

This site

A Summary of the Lead at Work Regulations on Biological Monitoring

Units for blood lead measurement (including an on-line convertor}

External sites

ATSDR on Lead

Museum of Lead Mining, Wanlockhead, Scotland

Sample Requirements and Reference Ranges for Lead

Sample Type Blood, urine, water
Container Blood: EDTA or lithium heparin
Urine / water: Universal container
Precautions Blood samples for occupational exposure should be taken at the end of a working shift.
Minimum volume* Blood: 300 µL
Water: 1mL1
Reference ranges

Blood Lead:        < 0.25 µmol/L (5 µg/100mL)

                           > 2.0 µmol/L (40 µg/100mL) (can cause clinical effects)

                           > 2.90 µmol/L (60 µg/100mL) (occupational exposure limit)

ZPP:                    < 30 to 80 nmol/mol haem

Urine lead:          < 110 µg/g creatinine (occupational exposure limit)

Water:                < 50 µg/L Current EEC limit for drinking water

Turnaround time

1 week (please telephone 0141 211 4494 if immediate turnaround required)

Method Graphite furnace / atomic absorption spectrometry
  1. For assessment of lead in water, two samples are required; a first draw sample in the morning and a further sample taken after running the water for 5 - 10 mins.
  2. Significant exposure in adults is present when values reach 2.0 µmol/L, and in children 1.35 µmol/L.
  3. One sample of blood is sufficient for blood lead and porphyrin analysis.

* This is the absolute minimum volume; these volumes are insufficient to carry out a repeat analysis in the event of an analytical problem.

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