By Renée Cho & Alexander van Geen

May 28, 2024

While people have known for millennia that lead is a toxic substance, it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that scientists recognized exactly how dangerous it can be, even at low levels of exposure. Yet even now, a third of the world’s children—up to 800 million globally—are affected by lead poisoning.

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Toxic metals, carcinogenic substances, and much more nicotine than is legally allowed. That’s what’s in vapes that are frequently smoked by Dutch youngsters, according to research by RTL Nieuws. We examined unwrapped vapes that ten high schools from across the country sent to our editors upon request. Experts call the results “extremely worrisome”. “This research shows for the first time that Dutch children are using vapes that are poisoning their own bodies and brains.”

“Some of the results are bizarre”, states Remco Westerink, a toxicologist at Utrecht University, after studying the findings. “If you consider that children with undeveloped brains use it, this is really a harmful product.”

Many Dutch people vape, even at a very young age. October revealed that one in five young people between 12 and 25 had vaped at some point in the past year, ranging from once a month to every day. This is partly why the government introduced stricter regulations: since Jan. 1, it has been illegal to sell a flavored vape. Yet it is still easy to get one, which is why many young people still do it.

Vaping is not allowed in most high schools, which is why they have a rule that teachers take away vapes if students are caught smoking an e-cigarette.

Liquid and vapor tested

RTL News asked high schools across the country if they would send the vapes they picked up to our editors. We had a selection of them examined by a specialized laboratory in Liverpool, UK. There, the liquid in the vapes was analyzed and the vapor inhaled when smoking the vape was tested. This shows the following:

  • 8 of the 20 vapes contained (much) more nicotine than permitted by law
  • Formaldehyde was found in 7 of the 20 vapes
  • Lead was found in 3 of the 20 vapes
  • All 20 vapes had a larger content than allowed by law
  • Nickel, acetone, iron, acrolein, valeraldehyde, and butyraldehyde were also found in several vapes

But what does this mean? Toxicologist Westerink is clear about that: “This shows that there are many different harmful substances in vapes. That is worrying in itself, but when you consider that these vapes were used by children with still developing brains, this is really a harmful product.”

As much nicotine in one vape as hundreds of cigarettes

That there was too much nicotine in the vape in almost half of the cases is one of the most striking findings, according to Westerink. “There are even vapes among them with an amount of nicotine from 200 to 400 cigarettes.” And that can lead to major problems. For example, nicotine can interfere with brain development, cause concentration problems and mood swings, and is very addictive.

In fact, one vape tested contained 11 times more nicotine than the legally permitted amount of 20 milligrams per milliliter of liquid. Westerink: “If you keep smoking such a vape continuously, and would finish it in one go, it is without a doubt serious for your health and it could even be deadly.”

“This is unbelievable”

Esther Croes, a tobacco expert at the Trimbos Institute, is “horrified” by these numbers. “20 milligrams, the legal maximum and intended for smokers, is already bizarre for children. But these vapes are also much larger than allowed and have much more nicotine. That’s indescribable. And then they are also produced and sold in an attractive form to children.”

The Trimbos Institute knows from questionnaire surveys that many Dutch youths vape and foreign research recently revealed that there may be harmful substances in vapes. Croes states that RTL News’ research “brings these two data together for the first time.

“Now it is rock solid evidence that the vapes used by Dutch children also contain so many harmful substances. Heavy metals, huge amounts of nicotine, and other toxic and carcinogenic substances. Your research shows that Dutch children are poisoning their bodies and brains with these vapes.”

Lead found in three vapes

In addition to the large amounts of nicotine, toxicologist Westerink calls it extremely problematic that lead was found in the vapes used by children. “Lead is a heavy metal, a toxic substance which is particularly harmful to the development of the brain. In addition, it can cause a decrease in IQ of up to five points. You really don’t want this in vapes.”

Possibly the lead is released through the heating coil, wires, and solder joints in the vape, explains researcher Tom Coleman of the Inter Scientific laboratory: “For example, some solder in vapes is of a cheaper, poorer quality with more lead. We typically see that in vapes from manufacturers from China.”

Also formaldehyde: a carcinogen

The substance formaldehyde, normally used as a disinfectant, is also likely to be released during the burning process in the vape. The aggressive substance was found in 7 of the 20 vapes examined. Westerink: “This is dangerous. At high doses, this is a carcinogenic substance that can damage cells. Of course, you don’t want children to ingest this either. Even at low doses, it can cause respiratory irritation and inflame the airways.”

Toxicologist Jan Tytgat also looked at the research results at the request of RTL News. Working at the Belgian University in Leuven and specializing in e-cigarettes, he also states that formaldehyde is a carcinogen. He additionally calls it a substance of concern “that you should absolutely avoid.”

According to him, the same goes for the other substances found in the vapes: “Nickel can cause all kinds of allergies. Acrolein is an irritant to the skin and lungs. And acetone can cause headaches, confusion, and a feeling of unease.”

In addition, all of the vapes examined had a larger capacity than allowed by law. Simply put, a vape may hold 600 puffs, but all the vapes examined were well above that. Some even had 15,000 puffs.

Westerink calls the research “an eye opener”: “Despite the ban, these flavored vapes can still be found in the schoolyard. That it now turns out that there are these harmful substances in there, sometimes in high quantities, hopefully, helps raise awareness that a vape is not a safe but an extremely undesirable product.”

“We must protect children to the maximum”

Esther Croes of Trimbos agrees: “These are substances that can turn your body upside down for the rest of your life because they can cause damage in all sorts of places in your body. Together we must protect children to the maximum and do everything we can to make them resilient. After all, our youth have a whole future ahead of them and must be able to grow up healthy. These results emphasize that we do have a real problem in the Netherlands.”

Source: RTL.

Notre-Dame Cathedral Fire 2019

Notre-Dame Cathedral is one of France’s most famous landmarks. Located on Île de la Cité island in Paris, its construction took nearly 200 years and was completed in the 14th century. On April 15th, 2019, a fire ravaged its roof and its spire, spreading around huge amounts of lead. French President Emmanuel Macron then pledged to rebuild the cathedral before the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Contamination During and After the Fire

Prior to the fire, the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, undergoing renovations at the time, held approximately 460 tons of lead. It is estimated that 150kg of lead was released into the smoke during the fire. Following the accident, surface soil samples were collected within a 1 km radius of the cathedral, and air quality measurements were conducted at a station located 50km from the cathedral. The results indicated elevated levels of lead.

In the aftermath of the fire, the AFVS (Association of Families Victims of Lead Poisoning) embarked on a campaign to warn the population about the risks of lead exposure. Mathé Toullier, president of the association, and Annie Thébaud-Mony, a health sociologist, explained that few precautions were taken during and after the fire: on-site firefighters and police did not wear appropriate protection, nor did the employees mobilized afterward to clear the debris. Lead concentrations during the cleanup sometimes reached levels 100 to 1000 times higher than those recommended by the Public Health Regulations. A specialized decontamination design office commissioned by the Ministry of Culture also recommended the cathedral’s lockdown and decontamination, a project finally buried to the detriment of public health.

In a research article published in GeoHealth, Alexander Van Geen, a professor at Columbia University, states:
“Our surface soil data collected 9–10 months after the fire show that the population residing within 1 km and downwind of the fire was probably considerably more exposed to Pb fallout, albeit for a brief period, than indicated by measurements and surveys conducted by local authorities weeks to months later.”

Protecting Children: What Measures?

After the fire, few measures were taken to protect children from the risks of lead exposure: no health instructions in nurseries and schools, and it took months for lead blood level tests to be conducted in children.

As reported by the Basta! newspaper, during the summer following the fire, samples were taken in several schools at the request of families and associations. In certain playgrounds, lead levels were found to be 5 to 18 times higher than the average in the streets of the capital. The affected schools were temporarily closed for cleaning of the premises.

In children, 50% of ingested lead is absorbed, compared to 5 to 10% in adults. Children are particularly vulnerable because they often put their hands to their mouths, and also because their nervous and skeletal systems are still developing. Lead exposure can create behavioral disorders, hearing and growth troubles, leading to abdominal pain, fatigue, memory loss, learning difficulties, anorexia, sleep disorders, and anxiety.

A Reconstruction that Raises Concerns

President Emmanuel Macron announced his intention to rebuild the cathedral before the opening of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. Donations poured in from all around the world to fund the monument’s reconstruction.

On April 15th, 2024, five years after the fire, members of the AFVS association along with other activists gathered in front of the cathedral to protest against the presence of lead in the monument’s reconstruction. Indeed, despite health risks, the government decided that the cathedral’s roof and spire should be rebuilt identically, using lead.

This decision appears perplexing on multiple fronts. Firstly, people are aware of the toxicity of lead. Secondly, less hazardous alternatives such as zinc could readily serve as substitutes. Thirdly, given the likely lead exposure and potential health impact caused by the Notre Dame Cathedral fire, this decision seems even more puzzling. Haven’t we learned anything from this? It’s ironic, especially because the French Social Security system recognizes lead poisoning as a work-related illness!

Sources: GeoHealth, Santé Publique France, ActuParis, Basta!

Researchers at AMOLF have utilized the unique properties of perovskite semiconductors to develop a simple spraying test for demonstrating the presence of Lead. Perovskite is a material suitable for use in LEDs and solar cells.

A surface containing Lead shines brightly green when sprayed with the test. This test is 1,000 times more sensitive than existing tests, and researchers have found no false positives or false negatives. The study was published on November 27 in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology.

“We have redirected perovskite semiconductor technology and used it in a widely deployable Lead test. Nobody in this field had ever thought of it,” explains Lukas Helmbrecht, a researcher in the Self-Organizing Matter group led by Wim Noorduin at AMOLF. “We are very pleased with these results,” says Noorduin. “It’s a really cool project, and it’s quite rare for fundamental research to have a literal impact on the entire world with an application.”

Science at home

A few years ago, the group developed a two-step process to transform a calcite structure, such as the skeleton of a sea urchin, into a semiconductor. The calcium carbonate in the skeleton reacts and transforms into Lead perovskite, a semiconductor material that emits light under UV light.

While stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Noorduin pondered other possible applications of this material. At the same time, he learned about significant health risks associated with Lead exposure, especially for young children who can suffer brain damage. A simple test to demonstrate the presence of Lead could help reduce such exposure, and perhaps the electroluminescent properties of Lead perovskite could contribute to it.

Noorduin took home a solution that could form perovskite if it came into contact with Lead and sprayed it on a gutter. It immediately emitted a bright green color. To his surprise, the same thing happened with the paint on the adjacent window frame, which also lit up. Both surfaces contained a form of Lead. The green light is luminescent and reveals the formation of Lead perovskite semiconductor. “It worked so easily that we started thinking about developing a test to detect Lead on a wide range of surfaces.”

Only Lead lights up

Helmbrecht took up the challenge and found that a methylammonium bromide solution was the most effective. As soon as this solution comes into contact with a Lead compound, it immediately forms Lead perovskite, which lights up bright green under UV light. Helmbrecht tried a range of surfaces, from Lead pipes and paint to Lead salts, glass, and plastics such as PVC and electrical wires. They all lit up bright green, proof of the presence of Lead. If an iodide or chloride solution is used instead of bromide, the emitted light is respectively red or blue.

Furthermore, Helmbrecht tested over fifty materials that did not contain Lead but contained similar elements, such as tin, aluminum, and copper. None of them lit up. This indicates that the test is highly chemoselective. The test reveals Lead concentrations of one nanogram per mm2, while most current tests have an accuracy not exceeding a few micrograms per mm2. The new test is, therefore, 1,000 times more sensitive.

Discoveries in Lead Detection Chemistry

It is interesting to note that the Lead compound in which the material contains metallic Lead or one of the Lead salts does not matter. Noorduin explains: “It seems that all compounds are converted into what is called Lead 2+ valence. We are not surprised that the chemical reaction only works with Lead. We know this from research on perovskite solar cells and LEDs. The limited reaction is a disadvantage for solar cells, but for our test, it is an advantage because it makes the test very selective. However, we were surprised that the test works for so many different Lead-containing materials.

The exact course of the chemical reaction is still under study, Noorduin explains. “We think it is a multi-step process in which Lead first dissolves a bit, undergoes possibly a redox reaction, and then forms a Lead salt, which is then transformed into perovskite. However, the reaction is so fast that we are not sure about it but able to detect the steps.

The knowledge gained from this study, which after all started with research on perovskite semiconductors, could in turn stimulate the same type of research in the development of better solar cells or LEDs from perovskite, for example.

Health benefits worldwide

A spin-off from this research is the company Lumetallix, which Helmbrecht and Noorduin are establishing in collaboration with Jeroen van den Bosch, with the recent arrival of Xander Terpstra (CCO). They jointly hold an international patent with AMOLF on the process and the development of a universal test kit. It is both affordable and easy to use for anyone who wants to know if Lead is present in the environment. Test kits can be ordered through the website. Researchers are also working with NGOs worldwide to distribute kits to the local population, in India and Ivory Coast, for example. This would enable people to take their own measures to eliminate Lead and thus prevent health problems.

“The fact that a surface containing Lead lights up bright green after spraying it presents many advantages over the existing test that only shows a color change,” explains Helmbrecht. “Firstly, the existing test does not work for color-blind people. Secondly, our test emits light if Lead is detected, meaning you can also observe the result effortlessly in dark places like basements. Thirdly, the fact that something ‘lights up’ is both magical and alarming. We hope to find more people willing to take the test so that we can raise more awareness of the presence of Lead, also here in the Netherlands.”

More information:

Lukas Helmbrecht et al., Direct Lead Detection in the Environment by Photoluminescent Perovskite Formation with Nanogram Sensitivity, Environmental Science & Technology (2023). DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.3c06058

Journal information:

Environmental Science & Technology

The reagent reacts with lead, forming a perovskite that fluoresces green under UV light

Lead is highly toxic, especially to children, and it is pervasive in various materials such as water pipes, paints, glass, electronic components, and ammunition.

Due to activities like mining, coal power plants, or recycling, this heavy metal ends up directly in the environment, posing a particular threat to small children and potentially causing lifelong consequences, including neurological disorders, learning difficulties, and severe physical illnesses. Fortunately, removing this toxin from the environment is relatively straightforward once its presence is identified. The challenge lies in detecting its presence, as it typically requires complex laboratory processes to separate and enrich the element from samples.

Detecting dangerous levels of lead in the environment may become significantly easier in the future. A research group led by Willem L. Noorduin has developed a method in which a sample is sprayed with a chemical, and using a UV lamp, one can immediately determine if lead is present. As reported in the journal “Environmental Science & Technology,” the method correctly identified the presence of lead in experiments with over 50 samples. Moreover, it proved effective even at very low concentrations and with all types of lead compounds. The spray contains Methylammonium bromide, a substance that forms a semiconducting mineral with lead, emitting a green glow under UV light.

The discovery revolves around Perovskites, a class of materials with versatile properties currently under intensive research by various groups and companies. Solar cells based on lead-containing semiconducting Perovskites achieve over 25 percent efficiency. Noorduin and his team originally developed Methylammonium bromide for Perovskite production, and the ability to detect lead in the environment was, according to the research group, a fortunate discovery. The chemical reaction that forms the Perovskite upon contact with lead and spray, even in the presence of water or acid that would typically break down Perovskites, remains somewhat mysterious.

Household items - lead

AMOLF researchers have used the special properties of perovskite semiconductors to develop a simple spray test to demonstrate the presence of lead. Perovskite is a material suitable for use in LEDs and solar cells, for example.

A lead-containing surface shines bright green when it is sprayed with the test. This test is 1,000 times more sensitive than existing tests and the researchers found no false positive or false negative results. The study was published on November 27 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

“We have hijacked the technology of perovskite semiconductors and used it in a widely deployable lead test. Nobody in this discipline had ever thought of that,” says Lukas Helmbrecht, researcher at the group Self-Organizing Matter led by Wim Noorduin at AMOLF. “We are very pleased with these results,” says Noorduin. “It is a really cool project and it is quite rare for fundamental research to literally impact the entire world with an application.”

Read the full article on

Lead testing in the field

AMOLF researchers have used the special properties of perovskite semiconductors to develop a simple spray test to demonstrate the presence of lead. Perovskite is a material suitable for use in LEDs and solar cells, for example.

Revolutionary Lead Detection with Perovskite Semiconductors

A lead-containing surface shines bright green when it is sprayed with the test. This test is 1000 times more sensitive than existing tests and the researchers found no false positive or false negative results. The study was published on November 27th in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology.

“It is a really cool project and it is quite rare for fundamental research to literally impact the entire world with an application.”

“We have hijacked the technology of perovskite semiconductors and used it in a widely deployable lead test. Nobody in this discipline had ever thought of that,” says Lukas Helmbrecht, researcher at the group Self-Organizing Matter led by Wim Noorduin at AMOLF. “We are very pleased with these results,” says Noorduin.

Read the full article on

Paint - lead

Although the global ban on leaded gasoline has markedly reduced lead poisoning, many other environmental sources of lead exposure, such as paint, pipes, mines, and recycling sites remain.

Existing methods to identify these sources are either costly or unreliable. We report here a new, sensitive, and inexpensive lead detection method that relies on the formation of a perovskite semiconductor. The method only requires spraying the material of interest with methylammonium bromide and observing whether photoluminesence occurs under UV light to indicate the presence of lead. The method detects as little as 1.0 ng/mm2 of lead by the naked eye and 50 pg/mm2 using a digital photo camera. We exposed more than 50 different materials to our reagent and found no false negatives or false positives. The method readily detects lead in soil, paint, glazing, cables, glass, plastics, and dust and could be widely used for testing the environment and preventing lead poisoning.

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Lead contamination and exposure can cause “ profound and permanent ” impacts, including brain damage in children, and increased risk of kidney damage, cardiovascular disease, and miscarriage, according to the World Health Organization.

Lead Detection Breakthrough: Green Fluorescent Light with Spray-on Detector

While known contamination is relatively easy to mitigate, the detection itself can be a tricky proposition. Standard methods can only detect lead if it’s isolated and concentrated first.

Now, researchers at Amolf, a research institute dedicated to studying the physics of matter, have developed a spray-on reagent that signals the presence of even tiny amounts of lead by lighting up fluorescent green under a UV light within seconds. Comprised of methyl ammonium bromide in isopropanol, it reacts with lead to form a photoluminescent lead bromide perovskite (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2023, DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.3c06058) .


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Over de aflevering
Deze week werden de winnaars van de Amsterdam Science Innovation Award bekend gemaakt. Eén van de kanshebbers is Lukas Helmbrecht, van de UvA en AMOLF. Hij heeft iets ontwikkeld waarmee loodvervuiling heel makkelijk en goedkoop gedetecteerd kan worden.

We bespreken hoe groot het probleem met loodvervuiling is en welke oplossing hij onder de naam Lumetallix heeft ontwikkeld.

Lees hier meer over de Amsterdam Science Innovation Award

Luister de volledige aflevering op of luister hier: