Lead Lesson for Kids: Element Discovery & Properties

Instructor: Suzanne Rose

Suzanne has taught all levels PK-graduate school and has a PhD in Instructional Systems Design. She currently teachers literacy courses to preservice and inservice teachers.

Do you write with a pencil? We often call them 'lead pencils,' but they actually have graphite, not lead, in them! Read this lesson to find out what the element lead is really like, and how it's been used throughout history.

Get the Lead Out!

Has anyone ever told you to ''get the lead out?'' Or maybe you've heard someone say that a bad idea ''went over like a lead balloon?'' Both these expressions have to do with the element lead (pronounced 'led') because lead weighs a lot! To give you an idea of just how much: a gallon of milk weighs about 8 1/2 lbs., but the same gallon container filled with lead would weigh almost 95 lbs.! There are elements that weigh more than lead, but because lead is so common, we often use it to describe something heavy.

What's With the ''Pb''?

Like all elements on the periodic table of elements, lead is made up of just one kind of atom. Its atomic number is 82. Each element also has a symbol that represents it; for example, the symbol for the element helium is ''He'' and the symbol for oxygen is ''O''. The symbol for lead is ''Pb.'' That seems strange, doesn't it?

A Roman Lead Pipe
pipe

The Latin word for lead is actually plumbum. That's where the symbol ''Pb'' comes from! The ancient Romans, who lived over 2,000 years ago, used lead to make water pipes. They called the lead plumbum, which means ''waterworks.'' Does that remind you of a word we use today? We still call people who work with water pipes 'plumbers!'

One of the First Metals

No one is sure who first discovered lead, but we do know that it's been used by people for at least 8,500 years!

Lead is rarely found in a pure form in nature; it's usually combined with silver, zinc and copper. Most of today's lead comes from the mineral galena, which is mostly mined in Australia, the USA, China, Peru and Canada. Much of the lead that is used for manufacturing now comes from recycled lead.

Galena
galena

For thousands of years, lead has been used to manufacture many things, such as paint, pipes, gasoline, and even makeup! In the last 100 years, though, scientists have realized that lead is actually poisonous to people. Little bits of it build up in our bodies, and when we get too much, it can cause many illnesses. For this reason, lead is no longer used for things with which people might have direct contact.

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