Industries with high potential for lead exposure, including construction, not only put workers at elevated risk of lead poisoning, but their families may also be inadvertently exposed through take-home lead dust.
THE tragedy in Flint, Mich., thrust lead contamination into the spotlight, and much attention has been focused rightly on the terrible consequences of childhood lead exposure.
Most people, however, are unaware that adults can also experience serious health effects from lead. As with many chemicals and hazards, workers are often more highly exposed than the general population. Examples of industries with high potential for lead exposure include construction and battery manufacturing. In these and other industries, not only are workers at elevated risk, but their families may also be exposed inadvertently through take-home lead dust.
In Washington state, there are two primary standards that regulate occupational exposure to lead: the “general industry lead standard” and the “lead in construction standard.” Unfortunately, both of these standards are severely outdated, based on information available in the 1970s instead of the latest scientific and medical evidence.
Under the existing inadequate standards, workers can be exposed to levels of lead that result in blood-lead levels up to six times higher than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s maximum health goal for adults.
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Moreover, levels of lead much lower than Washington state’s current standard have been linked to high blood pressure, decreased kidney function, reproductive effects and neurological impairments. Standards should change to reflect the latest public-health recommendations and scientific evidence.
To adequately protect workers and their families, blood-lead levels must be routinely monitored when there is any possibility of lead exposure, and individuals should be removed from their duties when their blood-lead levels are above the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s reference level for adults.
We have the technology to drastically reduce occupational lead exposure. We need to give workers the safe workplaces they deserve.
The health benefits of updated occupational lead standards would extend beyond workers and would also protect their children and families.
Workers often inadvertently carry lead dust on their skin and clothing when they return home, which can cause lead poisoning among family members. Stricter standards that require lower workplace lead levels and better personal protection would substantially reduce take-home lead exposures.
Second, since lead easily crosses the placenta during pregnancy, children born to lead-exposed workers are at risk for neurodevelopmental and other adverse health effects.
Better standards would reduce potential fetal lead exposure in female workers of childbearing age.
The state Department of Labor and Industries should move swiftly to update our existing outdated lead standards. Workers in this state should not be subject to the health risks of lead exposure. Nor should their children suffer the secondhand consequences of this well-known poison.
It’s time to take action and give our workers and their families the protection they deserve.