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Metallic chemical element, chemical symbol Pb, atomic number 82. Lead is a soft, silvery white or grayish, malleable, ductile, dense metal that conducts electricity poorly. Its stable isotopes are all end products of radioactive decay of uranium and other heavy elements. Known since ancient times, lead is so durable and resistant to corrosion that Roman lead pipes are still usable. Lead is used in roofing, as cable coverings, and in pipes, conduits, and structures. Other uses are in storage batteries, ammunition, and low-melting-point alloys (e.g., solder, pewter) and as shielding against sound, vibrations, and radiation. Lead is rarely found free in nature; its major ore is the sulfide galena (PbS). Because it and its compounds are poisons (seelead poisoning), lead-based paints and gasoline additives have been phased out in many countries. Lead in compounds has valence 2 and 4; an oxide (litharge, PbO) is the most widely used. Lead compounds are added to lead crystal (seeglass), glazes, and ceramics and are used as pigments, drying agents for paints and varnishes, insecticides and herbicides, and fireproofing agents and in matches, explosives, and pyrotechnics. Almost half of all lead is recovered from recycled scrap. The lead in pencils is graphite.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on lead, visit Britannica.com.