For most modern consumers, lead has a bad rap. Even the ancient Romans suspected that lead caused serious health issues, but the metal was so useful that they chose to overlook the risks. It wasn’t much different in the US, when lead was used extensively despite the health concerns. People were right to be afraid, as it was later proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that lead poisoning is a serious issue. The metal, when absorbed by the body, affect the IQ, the capacity to pay attention, and school achievement. In more advanced cases, having too much of the metal in the blood leads to death.
Even in the early 1920s there were health concerns about lead paint and by 1925 it was banned in many parts of the world. It took the US until 1978 before it was finally banned. That’s why houses made before 1978 are considered somewhat dangerous because the paint used before then almost certainly contained lead. Flint, Michigan has just embarked on a city-wide project to replace their lead pipes with copper pipes. And leaded gasoline is considered one of the worst inventions in history. It was used to boost octane levels in the automotive fuel, but today only developing nations still use leaded gasoline.
Below is the historical Lead price per metric ton.
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Yet despite all this, lead is still and continues to be a crucial metal in modern society. It’s abundant in many parts of the world, and extracting this metal from the ground is not at all difficult or costly. It is still worth about 83¢ per pound. It’s been gaining up since last year, and in the first week of March it reached its highest prices in 8 months. And the outlook is good for the rest of the year.
Part of the reason for the uptick is the increase of vehicle sales in China, which went up by 7.7% from the same time last year. The increase in the price of the metal is because it’s a main component in car batteries. Add the weakening of the US dollar, and prices of base metals including tin, zinc, copper, and aluminum are going up.
Lead as Investment
What makes investing in lead so attractive to some investors is that its value is rising due to rising demand from emerging markets like China and India. Its use in construction has led to greater demand because these countries have started aggressive infrastructure initiatives and urbanization. They’re putting up more buildings and homes, and they’re buying more cars with car batteries containing lead. As a result, demand for the metal is up.
In the US, if you’re investing in this metal you’ll want to check on the lead-battery industry, which accounts of 90% of the lead use in the country. With deposits of the metal found all over the world, there is very little risk that the supply will be disrupted. In addition, many areas have large reserves and recycling also negates any risk in the supply.
Lead futures are traded in the London Metal Exchange.
Several factors can affect the price of the metal. One major factor is the pace of construction and urbanization in emerging markets. As this heats up, so does the price of base metals like lead. And the state of the construction and automotive industry in countries like the US should also be monitored.
Lithium-ion use is also on the rise, and this may spell a decrease in the demand for lead. Also, politics may also affect the price. China as a top producer of lead accounts for a large percentage of the supply of the metal, and any friction between the US and China can disrupt the supply of the metal.
Purposes Used For
Lead has many interesting properties that make it ideal for several types of uses. It is easily available. It is soft and malleable, and can easily be fashioned into any shape. It is extremely resistant to corrosion. And finally it is also astoundingly dense.
As we’ve already stated, lead is used mostly for batteries. These batteries aren’t just for automobiles either. They’re also used as industrial batteries that provide uninterruptible power-supply equipment for telecommunications and computer networks. They make sure that power is always available for hospitals, for emergency services, and for mobile phone networks.
Its other uses aside from batteries include the following:
- It is used for construction, such as for roof shingles and pipes.
- It is widely used for firearm ammunition.
- It is also used for medical vests, because its high density can be used as an effective shield against radiation.
- It is used as oxides in glass and ceramics. Lead glasses are very well suited for optical glass in very high quality.
As you can see, despite the horror stories, lead is still quite useful. As long as it is used responsibly, it will still have a place in modern society.