High Risk in Low Levels of Lead

What parent doesn’t embrace a child who rushes for a hug when Mommy or Daddy comes home from work?

Unfortunately, some Laborers – those who work around lead paints – must think twice before they act. New studies show that lead is significantly dangerous at levels far lower than previously thought, particularly for babies and young children.

For many years, exposure to lead was a well-known hazard for Laborers, particularly during the maintenance and repair of older buildings and bridges that were painted with highly toxic, lead-based paints.  When swallowed or inhaled, lead poisons the body, causing high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease, reduced fertility, depression, impaired brain function and anemia. It is especially toxic to pregnant women and may cause miscarriages and reduced birth weight.

However, after manufacturers reduced the lead levels of their paints, it was presumed that the products were significantly safer. Moreover, OSHA’s lead standard asserts that workers with blood lead levels (BLLs) as high as 40 μg/dL (micrograms per deciliter) are healthy.

Now, new studies show that BLLs as low as 10 μg/dL for sustained periods of time can result in hypertension or decreases in kidney and brain function.  Still more disconcerting is a recent University of California at Berkeley study – Indecent Exposure: Lead Puts Workers and Families at Risk – which reports that even exposures from contaminated work clothes can put spouses and children at risk. According to the analysis, “Many family members are poisoned by ‘take-home’ lead. Babies and young children are especially sensitive. Lead can affect their central nervous systems even before they are born – with potentially irreversible effects on their development and behavior.”

Laborers frequently encounter low-lead paints during sandblasting, torch-cutting and similar operations, and LIUNA and the LHSFNA have consistently pressed for a safer standard. Recently, a sign of change emerged from Washington. The Environmental Protection Agency adopted a new rule – effective April, 2010 – that requires the certification of contractors who work with lead-based paint in houses, child care facilities and schools built before 1978. Although aimed at the older, high-lead paints, this regulation may begin to enhance more general lead-danger awareness among contractors.

Until a stricter standard is adopted, Laborers and LIUNA signatory contractors need to understand the danger of low-level exposure and how it can be mitigated. Proper respirators and clean-up facilities are critical.

Laborers-AGC conducts lead safety training for LIUNA members. For more information, call (860) 974-0800. The Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America publishes the health alert Lead Poisoning that can be distributed to workers to keep them informed. It can be ordered through the Fund’s online catalogue.  Another resource is the Federal Highway Administration’s manual for safety on bridge projects that was developed in collaboration with the LHSFNA.

[Jennifer E. Jones]