Workplace Lead Exposure Still a Problem, CDC Reports

OSHA says that exposure to lead occurs in at least 120 different occupations. Overexposure to lead can result in serious illness and death. And according to a recent CDC study, occupational exposures are on the rise.

Lead exposure continues to be a risk for workers in the United States, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). CDC bases its conclusion on a study that looked at data from a large number of states over the past several years.

Although the rate of lead exposure dropped between 2004 and 2005, it climbed 3 percentage points between 2005 and 2007 to 7.4 cases per 100,000 adults. The majority of adults with elevated blood-lead levels were employed in manufacturing, construction, and mining.

To reverse the trend, the researchers suggest strengthening existing efforts, including:

  • Employer-maintained worker-protection programs
  • Government programs such as CDC’s Adult Blood Lead Epidemiology and Surveillance that tracks lab-reported elevated lead levels
  • NIOSH and OSHA initiatives such as OSHA’s national emphasis program to reduce lead exposure
  • Research and interventions by worker-affiliated organizations
  • Public education to prevent nonoccupational exposures

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How Lead Affects Health

Lead is a toxic substance that can be absorbed into the body by inhalation (breathing) and ingestion (eating). Except for certain organic lead compounds, lead is not absorbed through the skin.

When lead is airborne as a dust, fumes, or mist, it can be inhaled and absorbed through the lungs and upper respiratory tract. Inhalation of airborne lead is generally the most common source of occupational lead exposure.

Ingestion is possible, but less likely. For example, an employee who handles food, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, or makeup that have lead in them, or touch them with hands contaminated with lead, could end up swallowing enough lead to make him or her sick.

A significant portion of the lead that a worker inhales or ingests gets into the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, lead is circulated throughout the body and stored in various organs and body tissue. Some of this lead is quickly filtered out of the body and excreted, but the rest remains in the blood and in other tissue.

As exposure to lead continues, the amount stored in the body will increase if a worker is absorbing more lead than the body is excreting. Even though the worker may not be aware of any immediate symptoms, this lead stored in tissues can slowly cause irreversible damage—first to individual cells, then to organs and whole body systems.

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Symptoms of Overexposure

Short-term, or acute, exposure to high concentrations of lead can cause immediate serious health effects or even kill a worker within just a few days after exposure. Such exposures are fortunately rare.

Much more common is long-term, or chronic, exposure to small amounts of lead. Chronic exposure occurs over a period of years and can result in anemia, kidney disease, and damage to nervous and reproductive systems.

Common symptoms of chronic overexposure to lead include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Metallic taste in the mouth
  • Anxiety and nervous irritability
  • Nausea
  • Pallor
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Insomnia
  • Headache
  • Muscle and joint pain or soreness
  • Fine tremors
  • Numbness
  • Dizziness

Instruct employees who may be exposed to lead on the job to watch for and report any symptoms immediately.

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