High precision, lead isotope analyses of archived stream sediments from the River Wear catchment, northeast England (1986–88), provide evidence for three main sources of anthropogenic lead pollution; lead mining, industrial lead emissions and leaded petrol. In the upper catchment, pollution is totally controlled and dominated by large lead discharges from historic mining centres in the North Pennine Orefield (208Pb/206Pb, 207Pb/206Pb ratios range from 2.0744–2.0954 and 0.8413–0.8554 respectively). In the lower catchment, co-extensive with the Durham Coalfield and areas of high population density, pollution levels are lower and regionally more uniform. Isotope ratios are systematically higher than in the upper catchment (208Pb/206Pb, 207Pb/206Pb ratios range from 2.0856–2.1397 and 0.8554–0.8896 respectively) and far exceed values determined for the geogenic regional background. Here, the pollution is characterised by the atmospheric deposition of industrial lead and petrol lead. Lead derived from the combustion of coal, although present, is masked by the other two sources. Recent sediments from the main channel of the River Wear are isotopically indistinguishable from older, low order stream sediments of the North Pennine Orefield, indicating that contamination of the river by lead mining waste (up to several 1000 mg/kg Pb at some locations) continues to pose an environmental problem; a pattern that can be traced all the way to the tidal reach. Using within-catchment isotope variation and sediment lead concentrations, estimates can be made of the discharges from discrete mines or groups of mines to the overall level of lead pollution in the River Wear. As well as providing information pertinent to source apportionment and on-going catchment remediation measures, the database is a valuable resource for epidemiologists concerned with the health risks posed by environmental lead.