How current lead exposure limits are failing workers

| September 24, 2013
Workers at lead recycling plants are one group that faces a risk of increased blood lead levels. (Photo via http://www.universalrecyclingcompany.co.uk)

Workers at lead recycling plants are one group that faces a risk of increased blood lead levels (photo via www.universalrecyclingcompany.co.uk).

According to findings presented in an analysis from the Environmental Protection Agency, current limits for occupational lead exposure do little to address the potential health risks of low-level, long-term exposure.

Lead dust, which has been linked to cardiovascular and neurological deficits, is common in industries such as manufacturing, home remodeling and automotive repair. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) current standards for general industry – which have not been updated since they were established 35 years ago – limit workers’ blood lead level to 40 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (mcg/dL). Employees with blood lead levels above 50 mcg/dL must be temporarily removed from their job duties – receiving full pay and benefits – until their levels drop below 40 mcg/dL.

But the EPA’s analysis of policy-relevant” research – the “Integrated Science Assessment for Lead” – found that blood lead levels below this 40 mcg/dL threshold could have a cumulative adverse effect, causing increased blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as “declines in cognitive function over two- to four-year periods.”

In addition, OSHA’s permissible exposure limit for the workplace is 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, over an eight-hour period. That’s compared to the EPA’s national ambient air quality standard (NAAQS) for lead of 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter of air – which is a ten-fold decrease from the previous 1978 limit of 1.5.

Some state health departments and even some companies, however, have instituted their own systems to lower occupational exposure to lead.

In 2009, for example, the California Department of Public Health’s Occupational Health Branch adopted guidelines – not regulations – that advised physicians to keep workers’ lead levels below 10 mcg/dl and to initiate medical removal at 20 or 30 mcg/dl, depending on circumstances, until levels recede below 15 mcg/dl.

Contractors and remodelers who may be exposed to lead paint wear respirators to mitigate their exposure. (Photo via pennlive.com)

Contractors and remodelers who may be exposed to lead paint wear respirators to mitigate their exposure (photo via pennlive.com).

And according to an article in Scientific American, the RSR Corp. – which owns lead battery recycling plants in California, Indiana and New York – added exhaust ventilation hoods above identified sources of lead dust and provided additional employee training on mitigating their exposure. The measures reduced the average blood lead level of workers from 13.1 mcg/dl in 2002 to 9.2 mcg/dl in 2012.

But some in the industry have pushed back against the idea of more stringent lead standards. According to the Scientific American article, Battery Council International, which represents many lead-based manufacturing and recycling companies, argued that the increased costs of additional mitigation, testing and loss of productivity when workers are placed on paid medical removal could cause some companies to withdraw from the U.S.

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