Environmental lead exposure in Port Pire, South Australia and Esperance, Western Australia led to differing perceptions of risk among these communities. This paper describes our observations of the social and economic context of these cases of environmental lead exposure and how this influenced responses among the community. Lead had been transported out of the Esperance Port since 2005. However, much of the community was unaware of this until it became public as part of the investigation into bird deaths in the local environment. Esperance saw itself as an idyllic rural community, with a sound economic basis, but removed from the problems associated with cities, such as pollution. Once the lead problem was identified, residents became very concerned about their children’s health and demanded immediate action. On the other hand Port Pirie residents valued their long history associated with the lead industry. This industry underpinned the local economy. The attention from outsiders was seen as unwarranted and unnecessarily portraying the city as a dirty harmful place. These differences highlight the need for scientists and regulators to acknowledge that both the social context as well as patterns of exposure is integral to the assessment and management of risk.