Thousands of Calif. Workers Show Elevated Lead Levels
According to the most recent California public health report, over 6,000 area workers show elevated levels of lead in their blood. The employees span a range of industries, including manufacturing, munitions, and construction. The health report states the levels are high enough to warrant concerns of serious health issues.
The report highlights test results conducted between 2012 and 2014. It likewise coincides with a major move by Cal/OSHA to reconsider and update state safety standards for workplace lead exposure. It would be the first time the state’s employment health and safety agency has done so in decades. The current standards are based on 35-year old data and medical input. A problem as those findings never accounted for the dangers of long-term low-level lead exposure. Studies have since found that such chronic exposure even at minimal levels can cause lasting and permanent harm.
The authors of the report extrapolated data from the California Occupational Blood Lead Registry, specifically designed to track worksite exposure to lead. Of the 38,440 blood tested workers, 6,051 — 15.7% — have elevated levels of lead. These workers were primarily identified as men between the ages of 20 and 59 with Hispanic surnames and of the Southern California area. Those with the highest blood lead levels reportedly worked at shooting ranges or in ammunition manufacturing, firearm instruction, and gun repair, with some of the group working in painting, construction, and other metal industries.
The findings did not come as a shock to some safety experts. “It doesn’t surprise me. This is a huge problem,” Doug Parker, executive director of Worksafe, an Oakland-based worker health and safety advocacy organization, told California Healthline.
Lack of Research on Adults; Long-term Impacts
Currently, most public health actions aimed at preventing lead exposure focus on children. Lead is especially noxious during youth as it can cause irrevocable damage to brain nerve cells during development. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal for children and teenagers.
Adults also face a number of serious health problems, particularly in situations of chronic exposure. Symptoms and health damages include heart disease, cognitive difficulties, reproductive issues, and kidney failure. In some cases, workers exposed to lead dust at the worksite unknowingly carried it home via their clothes, skin, and belongings and exposed their families, housemates, and pets to it.
California law requires employers to provide testing to employees who use or ‘disturb’ lead during work operations. Employers must also legally minimize lead dust and fumes. However, state researchers warn that many other employers, such as foundries and painting contractors, are not testing their workers.
“The result of this large testing deficiency is that we do not know the true numbers of California workers with elevated blood lead levels,” the authors write in the report.