Lead is a dense, soft, low-melting metal. It is an important component of batteries, and about 75% of the world’s lead production is consumed by the battery industry. Lead is the densest common metal except for gold, and this quality makes it effective in sound barriers and as a shield against X-rays. Lead resists corrosion by water, so it has long been used in the plumbing industry. It is also added to paints, and it makes a long-lasting roofing material.

Lead is a health hazard to humans if it is inhaled or ingested, interfering with the production of red blood cells. Its use must be carefully controlled, and several formerly common uses of lead are now restricted by the government.

Lead paint is found in many older buildings, but it is now mostly used on outdoor steel structures such as bridges, to improve their weatherability. A lead compound called tetraethyl lead was added to gasoline as early as 1921 because it prevented the “knocking” problem of high-compression automobile engines. However, most gasoline now contains no lead, because lead from car exhaust was a major source of air pollution.

Lead is also commonly used in glass and enamel. In television picture tubes and computer video display terminals, lead helps block radiation, and the inner, though not the outer, portion of the common light bulb is made of leaded glass. Lead also increases the strength and brilliance of crystal glassware. Lead is used to make bearings and solder, and it is important in rubber production and oil refining.

Raw Materials

Lead is extracted from ores dug from under-ground mines. More than 60 minerals contain some form of lead, but only three are usually mined for lead production. The most common is called galena. The pure form of galena contains only lead and sulfur, but it is usually found with traces of other metals in it, including silver, copper, zinc, cadmium, and antimony as well as arsenic.

Two other minerals commercially mined for lead are cerussite and anglesite. Over 95% of all lead mined is derived from one of these three minerals. However, most deposits of these ores are not found alone but mixed with other minerals such as pyrite, marcasite, and zinc blende. Therefore much lead ore is obtained as a byproduct of other metal mining, usually zinc or silver. Only half of all lead used yearly derives from mining, as half is recovered through recycling, mostly of automobile batteries.

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