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Soldering is the process of permanently bonding two pieces of metal together by melting solder, which is a metal alloy that typically has a high lead content. This leads many to wonder, “Can you get lead poisoning from soldering?”
People can get lead poisoning from soldering if the solder used contains lead. Dust and fumes can enter the body through inhalation or ingestion. It’s important to take precautions to protect oneself when soldering.
Knowing how the lead gets into your body and what precautions to take can help protect you and your loved ones from accidental exposure. In this article, we will discuss some of the major health problems that can occur as a result of lead poisoning. We will also give you some tips on how to keep you, your family, and your co-workers safe.
What is Lead Poisoning?
Simply stated, lead poisoning is what happens when toxic levels of lead get into the body and cause damage. It is particularly stressful on the nervous system and can directly impact the brain. It can also result in other long-term health problems such as:
- Memory loss
- Neuromuscular problems
- Reproductive issues
How Does Soldering Cause Lead Poisoning?
Although many manufacturers are making adjustments to use non-lead solder, it has not yet been completely eliminated from the industry. If the solder contains lead, it can cause contamination and subsequent illness. For this reason, you should find out whether or not your solder contains lead and if there is a non-lead alternative available.
During the soldering process, the solder is heated to approximately 600 degrees Fahrenheit, which causes it to melt. It is then poured into the joint between the two components that need to be bonded. The solder then cools in the joint and forms a permanent bond between the two components.
There are two main ways in which the lead from the solder can enter your body:
Let’s take a closer look at these two forms of contamination and how they might occur.
Lead Poisoning Through Ingestion
The most common way for lead to enter your body during the soldering process is through ingestion. This usually happens when the surfaces in your workspace are contaminated with lead dust. Although touching the lead is not harmful to your skin, it can enter your body if you smoke, eat, drink, etc., without first washing your hands.
Lead Poisoning Through Inhalation
If the solder contains lead, the melting process can release fumes that contain lead contaminants. If you don’t take the proper precautions such as masks and safety goggles, you risk inhaling the fumes and potentially causing damage. The risk is exacerbated if you’re soldering in an enclosed space with poor ventilation.
What Health Problems Are Caused by Lead Poisoning?
Lead poisoning can cause a variety of health issues, from mild, temporary symptoms to long-term illness. The difference between them is typically determined by one of two things:
- Duration of exposure (usually defined as Acute or Chronic)
- Amount of lead in the materials during exposure
Short Term (Acute) Symptoms
When exposed to a small amount of lead over a short period, you are likely to experience only mild symptoms that might not last for an extended time. These can include memory loss, fatigue, and muscle pain. Patients in this category also often experience abdominal pain, digestive problems, and nausea.
In more severe cases of acute poisoning, you might be exposed to a large amount of lead over a short period of time. In this case, your body could go into shock due to a lack of fluid in your circulatory system. This lack of fluid is typically caused by diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems.
Long Term (Chronic) Symptoms
Chronic conditions typically fall into one of three categories:
When exposed to high amounts of lead, you will likely experience many of the neuromuscular and neurological problems associated with lead poisoning. Your body cannot clear the lead from its system fast enough to protect your nervous system from damage. When your nerves become damaged, you will experience things such as memory loss, depression, an inability to focus, and a variety of tingling and numbing sensations.
When exposed to lead over a long period of time, like years or decades, you tend to develop more severe problems in your gastrointestinal system. These are all very similar to those experienced in acute poisoning but will be more severe and could last much longer.
Be sure to stay safe and see a doctor immediately if you start to experience signs or symptoms of lead poisoning.
How Do You Avoid Lead Poisoning When Soldering?
There are a variety of ways in which you can protect yourself and others when soldering. Taking the proper precautions might take a little more effort on your part, but they are well worth it!
Here are some of the key ways in which you can protect yourself from lead poisoning while soldering:
- Wash your hands frequently. Remember, the most common way for you to contaminate yourself with lead from a soldering project is through ingestion. This happens when you have lead dust on your fingers, and you eat, drink, smoke, or touch your mouth. To avoid this issue, wash your hands each time you walk away from your workspace, whether taking a restroom break, lunch break or finishing up for the day.
- Don’t eat or drink while soldering. For all the same reasons listed above, simply avoid eating or drinking while working. Instead, schedule specific times for breaks and wipe everything down before you walk away from your workstation. This will help you avoid accidental ingestion through contaminated surfaces.
- Wear safety glasses at all times when soldering. Air pockets and impurities in the metal can pop and release lead dust during the soldering process. If these hit your naked eye, they can enter your body and cause contamination.
- Wear a mask over your nose and mouth. The fumes from the melting process will rise directly up towards your face. This poses a risk of inhalation. Wearing a respirator mask can help mitigate that risk. There are a variety of masks on the market for this type of work.
- Turn on an overhead hood or fan. If you can blow the fumes in a direction other than towards you or completely remove them from the air, there will be less risk of inhalation.
- Try to position your head at an angle away from where the fumes are rising. If they are moving straight up towards the fan or hood, tilt your head to the side to avoid direct contact.
- Clean up your area after each project. If you have a project that will last more than one day or more than one session, be sure to clean your workspace each time you walk away. Wiping down and sanitizing your tools and surfaces will help eliminate any trace amounts of lead that may be present.
Keep in mind that, though the above steps reduce your exposure to lead, they may not totally protect you from it. The best way to avoid lead-poisoning is to use solder that doesn’t contain lead.
If your solder contains any amount of lead, you can get lead poisoning from soldering. The concept is just that simple. Although many industries and manufacturers are looking for lead-free alternatives, they have not made the full transition.
If you are unable to discontinue your use of lead-based solder, try taking the precautions listed above to protect yourself. Long-term exposure to lead can be debilitating, and it can affect more than just you.
Lead Soldering Safety | UC San Diego (blink.ucsd.edu)
Soldering Safety Guideline | ehs.harvard.edu
Health Risks Associated With Exposure to Solder Fumes | AirBench (airbench.com)
Lead poisoning | Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org)