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Lead Poisoning: Protection Isn’t Just for Kids

Lead poisoning is a preventable condition that results from environmental exposure to lead and can result in permanent health damage. Lead poisoning affects almost all parts of the body, including the central nervous system, kidneys, and reproductive organs.

Adults are most often exposed to lead through occupational exposures. The major sources of lead are lead-based paint, urban soil and dust that contains deposits of paint, gasoline additives and industrial waste, and drinking water that has been contaminated from lead solder, brass fittings and fixtures.

Once lead enters the body, from inhalation or ingestion, it is distributed to the red blood cells, soft tissue and bones by way of the bloodstream.  It impairs vital biological functions throughout the body. Lead can cause serious damage to body systems, which may be permanent or fatal.

Chronic lead poisoning results after lead has accumulated in the bones over time. Adverse health effects may appear long after the exposure to lead has ended. Such problems include: impaired hemoglobin synthesis, hypertension, alteration in the central and peripheral nervous systems, and damage to the reproductive system.

Acute lead poisoning results after a significant amount of lead has entered the body over a short period of time. The primary health effects involve gastrointestinal distress, destruction of red blood cells and serious brain swelling.  Symptoms of less severe acute lead poisonings include: abdominal pain, constipation, irritability, fatigue, weakness and muscle pain. If someone is suffering from a more severe form of acute lead poisoning, their symptoms might include: vomiting, irritability and restlessness, progressive drowsiness, tremors and seizures and lapsing into a coma.

If an employer intends to shield workers from excessive exposure to lead poisoning, they must follow the following safety practices:

·        Have an industrial hygienist perform an initial hazard assessment of the worksite to determine the composition of any paint. Environmental monitoring should also be performed to measure worker exposure to airborne lead and select the engineering controls and personal protective equipment that is necessary. Environmental monitoring should be performed on an ongoing basis to measure the effectiveness of controls and to determine whether the proper respiratory protection is being worn.

·        Engineering controls should be used to minimize exposures to lead at the worksite. Airborne lead exposures should not exceed the current OSHA standard for general industry (50 µg/m3). Engineering controls should try to include substitution of less toxic material, equipment modification, and local and general exhaust ventilation.

·        Before welding, cutting, or burning any metal coated with lead, remove the coating to a point at least 4 inches from the area where heat will be applied. When removal of lead-based paint is not possible, use engineering controls like exhaust ventilation to protect workers who are welding, cutting, or burning the lead-coated materials. These controls should be used to remove fumes and smoke at the source and to keep the concentration of lead in the breathing zone below the OSHA standard. Contaminated air should be filtered before it is discharged into the environment.  

·        When performing abrasive blasting, scaling, chipping, grinding, or other operations to remove lead-based paint, minimize the amount of dust generated by using centrifugal blasting, wet blasting, and vacuum blasting. Other methods that reduce dust include scraping, use of needle guns, and chemical removal.

All workers exposed to lead should wash their hands and faces before eating, drinking, or smoking, and they should not eat, drink, or smoke in the work area. They should change into work clothes at the worksite. Street clothes should be stored separately from work clothes in a clean area provided by the employer. Workers should change back into their street clothes after washing or showering and before leaving the worksite. Cars should be parked where they will not be contaminated.