Lead is mentioned often in early biblical accounts. The Babylonians used the metal as plates on which to record inscriptions. The Romans used it for tablets, water pipes, coins, and even cooking utensils; indeed, as a result of the last use, lead poisoning was recognized in the time of Augustus Caesar. The compound known as white lead was apparently prepared as a decorative pigment at least as early as 200 bc. Modern developments date to the exploitation in the late 1700s of deposits in the Missouri-Kansas-Oklahoma area in the United States.
On a weight basis, lead has nearly the same abundance in the Earth’s crust as tin. Cosmically, there are 0.47 lead atoms per 106 silicon atoms.
The cosmic abundance is comparable with those of cesium, praseodymium, hafnium, and tungsten, each of which is regarded as a reasonably scarce element. Although lead is not abundant, natural concentration processes have resulted in substantial deposits of commercial significance, particularly in the United States, but also in Canada, Australia, Spain, Germany, Africa, and South America. Significant deposits are found in the United States in the western states and the Mississippi Valley. Rarely found free in nature, lead is present in several minerals; but all are of minor significance except the sulfide, PbS (galena, or lead glance), which is the major source of lead production throughout the world. Lead is also found in anglesite (PbSO4) and cerussite (PbCO3). Lead may be extracted by roasting the ore and then smelting it in a blast furnace or by direct smelting without roasting.
Additional refining removes impurities present in the lead bullion produced by either process. Almost half of all refined lead is recovered from recycled scrap.