What is Lead Shielding?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Lead shielding is a practice which is designed to protect people, equipment, and the environment from harmful radiation with the use of lead. Lead is a very dense metal which is capable of stopping alpha, gamma, and x-ray radiation, although it is less effective on neutron and beta radiation. Lead shielding in environments where radiation is present is required by law under codes dealing with occupational health and safety in many regions of the world, and when not required, radiation shielding is usually used anyway due to safety concerns.

X-ray technicians often wear lead shielding.
X-ray technicians often wear lead shielding.

For people who work around radiation, lead shielding is designed to reduce the risk of incurring damage as a result of radiation exposure. People like x-ray technicians and nuclear plant employees can wear lead aprons and other shielding garments which reduce their exposure to radiation. Similar protective garments are also used for people who are exposed to radiation in the course of medical treatment, and additional lead shielding can be created with the use of lead barrier walls, as seen in x-ray facilities where the technician stands behind a barrier while the patient is x-rayed.

People getting x-rays sometimes wonder why the technician is given ample radiation shielding, why they may have minimal or nonexistent shielding. The reason for this is that technicians are exposed to a great deal of radiation over time as a result of their occupation, while patients experience only small doses of radiation, which are less likely to be dangerous. Patients who need repeated exposure to radiation as part of the diagnosis and treatment of disease may be given more protections. Technicians are also required to wear devices which are used to monitor cumulative radiation exposure.

Equipment can also need protection from radiation. Lead casings to protect equipment along with lead wall materials are available for lead shielding. Certain experiments can be disrupted by radiation exposure, and in experiments which deal with radiation, controlling radiation with lead shielding can be an important part of the process. In environments with high amounts of radiation, equipment like furniture with lead shielding can be used.

People also use lead shielding in containers which hold radioactive material. Containment of radioactive waste often includes lead shielding, and when radioactive substances are transported, they may be carried in lead-lined containers for safety. In addition to shielding, containers for radioactive material must also bear warning labels and clear labeling which indicates what is inside the container and how the container needs to be handled.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@pastanaga - I've heard that drug growers will deliberately use pregnant women as "mules" when they transport drugs because airport authorities aren't supposed to use x-rays on pregnant women.

I don't think they are supposed to take the risk even if they use an x-ray lead shield to stop the rays.

I guess the women in question could easily sue them if they got the wrong person. Or maybe even if they got the right person.

It kind of makes it worse though, because being a drug mule is so dangerous, and in that case you're making your unborn child face the same danger that you are.


@bythewell - I had a friend who was in a car accident a few years ago and she was told to come in for an x-ray to make sure she hadn't broken anything. I think they might have been looking at her shoulder, but I'm not sure.

She found out later that she was pregnant when the car crash happened, and for months she was terrified that they hadn't shielded her properly when taking the x-ray. She was convinced something would be wrong with the baby and that it would be her fault (even though the accident wasn't her fault).

I'm not sure if they always ask whether you are pregnant but if there's the slightest chance you might be, you should make sure they know about it, so that they can explore other options, or at least make sure your stomach will be properly shielded.

My friend's baby was fine, but she had a lot of worry over such a preventable thing.


My mother recently had to have some x-rays done as they were checking the wire placement on her pacemaker after she had a fall. She had been experiencing chest pains and needed to make sure she hadn't moved them or something by accident.

She said they had a screen inside the x-ray room to make sure that they weren't exposed to excess rays.

At first I was a bit worried about that since it means what they were exposing my mother to was harmful, but then I realized they had to do so many x-rays every day that even a small amount of relatively harmless radiation could eventually become dangerous to them.

So I imagine they are quite diligent with the machine, since I saw them afterwards wheeling it somewhere and they all had lead vests on.

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