Lead is a super dense metal that was once very popular for use in many different applications. This is partly because it doesn’t react very well with other chemicals, but it is malleable and easy to work with. It is also completely stable (from a radioactivity point of view) and is the last element on the periodic table. But is it flammable and if so, will it burn?
Lead is not particularly flammable, though it can burn in some situations. It is not very reactive, which means it doesn’t react with oxygen in normal situations and that is necessary for it to catch fire. It will melt at 621 degrees Fahrenheit (327 Celsius).
Let’s talk more about lead and how its reactivity (or lack thereof) can affect flammability and fire. Will also look into some of the other issues associated with lead.
Your # 1 priority is keeping your family safe. As a firefighter, I recommend everyone has updated smoke detectors that don’t require battery changes, like these ones from Kidde, a fire extinguisher, like this one from Amerex, and a fire escape ladder if you have bedrooms above the first floor, I recommend this one from Hausse.
Also read: What Makes Something Flammable?
Is Lead Flammable?
Lead is an incredibly soft metal, in fact you can scratch it with a fingernail if you want to, and that means it has a lower melting point than most metals do.
However, it melts at 621.5 degrees Fahrenheit (about 327.5 degrees Celsius) which means that it cannot be considered flammable as it will not catch fire (or melt) at low temperatures. It will boil at 3100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Will It Ever Burn?
This does not mean, however, that lead doesn’t burn at all.
There is a process known as “lead burning”, in fact, which is a form of welding where two lead sheets are joined together.
This was a very important process in the early days of indoor plumbing and, in fact, why so many old buildings had lead water pipes.
It was achieved by aiming a high temperature flame at the lead and then using it to seal the two lead sheets together.
This process does create lead oxide, which is what you get when lead “burns”, though the lead oxide is not expelled from the lead but rather forms a layer on the lead itself.
This is both good and bad news.
It is good news for the welder because it means that they do not end up breathing in the lead oxide, but it is bad news for the welder because lead oxide can be absorbed through the skin.
In fact, anyone working regularly in lead burning operations must be tested regularly (weekly) for exposure to lead even if they are wearing gloves, eye protection, etc.
This is easy to do because anyone exposed to dangerous levels of lead will have blue lines around their gums!
Also read: Is Graphite Flammable? Explained
Should We Worry About Lead And Fire?
Unfortunately, while lead on its own does not burn very well, it’s been used (mainly in the past) in many things that do burn and when those things burn, you can inhale lead in the smoke they give off.
Also read: Is Sulfur Flammable?
Is Lead Poisonous?
Unfortunately, lead is poisonous, and even very small amounts in your body can lead to serious problems with your health.
Children, in particular, are very vulnerable to being poisoned by lead and if they are under 6, the effects can be permanently damaging to their mental and physical growth.
This video explains the science of what lead can do in the body:
In the right quantities lead will kill the individual exposed to it.
The symptoms of lead poisoning in children are:
- Developmental delays
- Special needs and cognitive impairment
- Loss of appetite and/or weight
- They become irritable easily
- Fatigue/extreme tiredness
- Vomiting, constipation, pain in the stomach
- Losing their hearing
- Starting to eat items that are clearly not food
And in adults they are:
- Mood problems
- Headaches and stomach pains
- Poor concentration and memory deficiency
- Joint/muscle pain
- High blood pressure
- And potentially problems with the reproductive system in both men and women (teratogen)
Where Is It Found?
Potential sources of lead in the home include:
- Paint. Lead-based paints have been banned in the United States since the 1970s but there are still plenty of older buildings where lead paints were used and are still on the walls. In a fire, lead in paint can easily be inhaled.
- Water pipes. Most modern water pipes are not lead based but again, in older buildings it’s not uncommon to find lead pipes, these do not present any particular hazard in a fire.
- Soil. Lead that has leached into the soil from gasoline (modern gasoline is unleaded, but it’s not so long ago that lead was commonly added to gasoline) or paint is a potential hazard in a fire.
- Dust. If your home is dusty, it might contain lead from paint or soil and dust, in its own right, is something of a fire hazard.
- Pottery, toys, herbal remedies, Mexican candies (particularly those containing tamarind), cosmetics, and lead bullets are also potential sources of lead.
How Does It Enter The Body?
Lead mainly enters your body, when you are exposed to it, by ingestion (e.g. you eat the thing that contains lead) which is far common in children than in adults, and by breathing in lead (in fumes or in fires).
How Can You Protect Yourself?
There are several things that you can do to reduce the risks of lead poisoning at home for you and your children:
- Live in a new home. The newer your home, the less likely it is that there will be any lead paint or pipes in the house. Also, the newer your home, the less likely it is to burn too, safety measures have come on leaps and bounds in the last few decades.
- Make handwashing essential. If your kids get in the habit of always washing their hands after being outside in the dirt, before they eat anything and before they sleep, any lead that does get on their hands won’t be ingested. It’s a good idea for you to wash your hands regularly for similar reasons.
- Don’t let dust build up in your home. It doesn’t take long to ensure that any dusty surfaces are given a proper clean once every week or so, this prevents any major lead buildups in the home and reduces the chances of large amounts of dust combusting.
- Take your shoes off outside. If your shoes are covered in soil that has been contaminated with lead, they won’t contaminate your home if you remove them before you go inside.
- Run the water before you use it. If you live in an old house, then the best way to ensure there’s no lead buildup in your water is to run it for a minute before drinking from it. You should always use cold water for drinking and making baby formula, etc. too as hot water may react with the pipes.
- Don’t let your kids play in the soil. Throw a blanket over it or better yet, get a sandbox and keep it covered when they aren’t playing in it. For areas of bare soil, grow grass in it and ensure your kids aren’t scooping up handfuls of lead-contaminated dirt.
- Eat a well-balanced diet. There is some evidence that shows a diet rich in Calcium, Iron, and Vitamin C will prevent lead from being absorbed into your body.
- Maintain your home. If you think your paint is lead-based make sure that you fix it if it peels and don’t sand any surfaces (which will generate lead-containing dust).
What Should You Do If You Think You Have Lead Poisoning?
If you believe that you’ve got lead poisoning (or any of your family has) then your first step should be to contact your health professional.
It is easy to test for lead poisoning and it is not expensive and the sooner you get tested, the better as the damage from lead poisoning cannot be fixed once it has occurred in the body.
Once a diagnosis has been made, if you do have lead poisoning the good news is that it can be treated and while you cannot undo damage, you can prevent any more damage from occurring.
Given the severity of the problems caused by lead poisoning, it can really pay to keep an eye on your environment and try to remove any possible lead containing items from it.