Everyone one of us is likely aware of what lead — as in the metal — is. Having a somewhat dull, metallic gray appearance, it occupies atomic number 82 in the periodic table and is among the most dense materials known to humankind. Lead’s low melting point and malleability even when at room temperature has made it a popular metal since humans first began to melt it out of ore in the Near East at around 7,000 BC in the Neolithic period.
Although lead’s toxicity to humans has been known since at least the 2nd century BC and was acknowledged as a public health hazard in the late 19th century, the use of lead skyrocketed in the first half of the 20th century. Lead saw use as a gasoline additive beginning in the 1920s, and the US didn’t abolish lead-based paint until 1978, nearly 70 years after France, Belgium and Austria banned it.
With the rise of consumer electronics, the use of lead-based solder became ever more a part of daily life during the second part of the 20th century, until an increase in regulations aimed at reducing lead in the environment. This came along with the World Health Organization’s fairly recent acknowledgment that there is truly no safe limit for lead in the human body.
In this article I’ll examine the question of why we are still using lead, and if we truly must, then how we can use this metal in the safest way possible.