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Cashins & Associates Blog

Industrial Hygiene: Lead - Dangers at Work and at Home

Posted by Eileen Watkins on Tue, Apr, 21, 2015 @ 16:04 PM

lead_hazard_signLead is a naturally-occurring element that has many beneficial properties and a corresponding widespread use.  It also, unfortunately, has the ability to damage human health.  Let's look at this age-old metal in order to understand lead's history, its properties, which populations are at risk, and what we can do to reduce our exposures to lead.

Lead's availability in the earth's crust, ability to melt at relatively low temperatures, resist corrosion, and easily mold into various shapes and forms led to wide usage in ancient times.  The early Romans heavily mined and smelted lead in order to make pipes, cooking pots and other everyday items.

Unfortunately, the relationship between lead and its toxicity to humans also goes back to ancient times.  Hippocrates and his peers correctly suspected that lead played a role in the anemia, colic, and gout that they were sometimes observing in their patients.

Lead's harmful effect on humans has sadly withstood the test of time.  Many people today still suffer from lead poisoning despite the fact that its use has been regulated and reduced.  One of the reasons for continued lead poisoning is the fact that elemental lead is bio-persistent.  In other words, it does not degrade or otherwise get destroyed once it is introduced into the environment.  Lead mining and smelting, the burning of coal, oil, and trash and the past use of leaded gasoline are some key activities that released lead into the air, soil, and water. 

Lead that enters the body first gets distributed in organs like the liver and kidneys.  Much of it will then be excreted but the remaining lead deposits in the bones and teeth where it can be stored virtually indefinitely.  This means that individuals who are continuously exposed to lead can bioaccumulate this toxin in high amounts.  The bones can release lead back into the bloodstream during pregnancy and nursing or as bones demineralize during the aging process. Lead can therefore continue to cause damage many years following an exposure or set of exposures.    

Lead can damage the body in several ways.  It can damage the nervous system and cause weakness in the wrists and ankles.  Lead can cause anemia, an increase in blood pressure, and kidney damage.  It can also cause insomnia, irritability, and decrease your libido.  Finally, lead can damage sperm and increase the risk of miscarriage.

Construction workers are potentially exposed to lead when they demolish, renovate, or remove items that have coatings containing lead on them. Welding and torch cutting surfaces that have lead based coatings will create a very high exposure to airborne lead. Cutting or welding on painted surfaces should NEVER be done. General industry workers who use solder, handle lead acid batteries, leaded glass or lead bullets, brass, or bronze are also at risk.  

Lead-based paint is responsible for many cases of lead poisoning, especially in young children.  While the concentration of lead in household paints is currently regulated and must not exceed 0.009%, this was not the always the case.  In fact, the EPA estimates that 3/4 of homes and housing units that were built before 1978 contain lead paint in concentrations that are harmful.  Technically speaking, leaded paint does not pose a danger if it is left intact, not disturbed, and does not become airborne.  In reality, painted surfaces degrade over time and generate flakes and dust which can become airborne and deposit on nearby surfaces.

Young children tend to ingest more lead than adults when they play in and around contaminated soil and surfaces and put their dirty hands in their mouths.  Unlike adults, who generally absorb a very small percentage of the lead they ingest, children appear to absorb about 50% of the lead that they swallow.  In addition, only about 1/3 of ingested lead is excreted in children (versus an approximate 90% excretion rate in adults).  Sadly, children who suffer lead poisoning are likely to develop learning and behavioral problems.  Some of these effects will last into adulthood if they are left unchecked.

Take the necessary steps to avoid lead exposures and lead poisoning.  Understand the OSHA standards for controlling exposures in general industry and construction.  Safety and Health professionals should make sure that your company is complying with the OSHA Lead Standard - 29 CFR 1910.1025. Lead exposures must be assessed by having an industrial hygiene assessment performed in the work place. Use of engineering controls (ventilation) and providing PPE that keeps lead off of your employee's skin and out of their lungs is required. Employees should be trained to report any signs or symptoms of lead exposure to their supervisor or a medical professional.  Don't let employees bring lead dust home and unwittingly expose their loved ones. 

At home protect yourself by hiring a licensed contractor to de-lead your home if you are going to renovate or remodel your pre-1978 home. Lead exposures can also occur at home if you enjoy a hobby that involves stained glass, fishing weights, or ammunition.  Make sure that your children have blood lead tests. 

Are your workers potentially exposed to lead?  Is there old lead paint at your place of business?  Are you complying with current lead regulations?  Cashins & Associates can help!  Click on the link below to contact us for a complimentary initial evaluation or download our Lead Compliance Flow Chart for Construction!!

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Topics: industrial hygiene, Lead

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