LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News vol 4 no 2  Autumn  1996  ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News ( ISSN 1440-0561)

The journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.

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Health Effects of lead on Workers

by Robin Mosman, The LEAD Group

An interesting development during the last quarter has been the number of workers contacting LEADLINE with lead levels much lower than the allowable NHMRC level for workers of 2.4 mol/L (50 g/dL), who are nonetheless experiencing significant health effects.

This is particularly of interest when considered beside a recent study co-authored by Dr. Howard Hu, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health. This study found a connection between high blood pressure and the amount of lead in the shinbones of 'middle-aged to elderly men who had the same exposure to lead as most Americans had in the last 40 to 50 years. Few of them had occupational or untoward exposures.' The authors of the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association 17.4.1996, suggested that current safety standards for lead exposure may need to be tightened. "The men in our study probably have levels well under the Occupational Health and Safety standard (up to 40 or 50 g/dL), but we feel that the lead is contributing to their hypertension" Dr. Hu said. "Maybe it's time to rethink the standard."

Another study, by the Harvard Medical School, published at the same time, found that increasing blood lead levels, even within a range considered low, impaired kidney function in adult men. "What worries me" said Dr. Rokho Kim, who led the study, "is the existence of a significant association between lead and serum creatinine even below the level of 10 g/dL. Dr. Kim suggested that a safer blood lead level for both children and adults might be 7 g/dL (Quotes from article in International Herald Tribune 18.4.1996)
Rokho Kim, MD, DrPH; Andrea Rotnitzky, PhD; David Sparrow, DSc; Scott T. Weiss, MD, MSc; Carrie Wager, BSc; Howard Hu, MD, ScD. (1996). A Longitudinal Study of Low level lead exposure and impairment of renal function. The Normative Aging Study JAMA Vol 275 No 15 April 1996. p.1177-1181. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=400546

In the meantime, high blood lead levels continue to be reported - a battery worker with a level of 41 g/dL an electrical engineer working on a contract at Port Pirie "more on the programming side, he's not that close to the lead", whose blood lead went from 15 g/dL to 35 g/dL in 6 weeks.

Inquirer 1 is a boiler welder, 41 years old, and has been working at Port Kembla steelworks for the last 12 months, cutting and grinding old painted steel. In that time, he "just hasn't been feeling well." He 's had "a lot of flu, tiredness, headaches, not sleeping well." He's had pneumonia. He's "used up all his sick leave with his last lot of flu." He asked his doctor for blood testing because of his general ill-health. His blood lead level is 0.71 mol/L (14.7 g/dL). Neither his GP nor the specialist to whom he was referred have tested his blood pressure.

In his previous job, he worked for 3 years doing 'brazing', which involved melting a substance called Tobin Bronze to 350'C. He has since found that this substance contains a lot of lead. The work necessitated him getting close to it, and there were a lot of fumes. There were no warnings given and he did not wear a mask. It was while he was at - this job that he started getting sick. Prior to that he had not experienced health problems - "only a bit of asthma."

There are no warnings about lead exposure at work in his current job. He wears a carbon filter mask about 50% of the time, but the filters look really old and dirty. He's a smoker, and doesn't eat in the morning until smoko at 9am.

LEADLINE gave him advice on ways in which he could take responsibility in reducing his exposure to and absorption of lead at work; wearing a HEPA plus carbon filter mask; not smoking at work; hand washing before eating; and eating breakfast and regular small snacks at work to reduce stomach acidity.

Since contacting LEADLINE, he has taken printed information from LEADLINE to work and workers have now been supplied with their own personal filter masks. Clean filters are supplied for regular changing.

There are still very few warnings about the danger of leaded dust, though. He now cats and smokes outside of the work area, and urges his co-workers to wash up before eating, but the washroom Is 5 minutes walk from where they are working, and "that 5 minutes comes out of your lunchtime." He eats breakfast. He does feel a bit better, but still feels that he will never be as well again, that permanent damage has been done. He is going to insist on a blood pressure test, and a test on his kidney function.

Inquirer 2 is a spray painter working in Queensland with a company making grain silos. The orange paint he sprays on the outside of the silos is 12% lead. The auger that touches the grain is also painted - "Would paint chips get into the grain that way?" It's painted on in spray booths inside a shed. "Everything is covered with the overspray - our clothes, boots, the lunch room is coated with orange spray. It's supposed to be a smoke-free area but they all smoke. The big boss came up from Melbourne and told them not to smoke inside but they ignored him." He and 2 other workers are the only non-smokers. "I can't complain because they'd get a set against me." He used to be a union shop steward but he gave away unionism "because as soon as you confront management after getting the support of the men on the factory floor, the men leave you for dead."

He "doesn't want to get in trouble by inviting Workplace Health and Safety in." The industry is already over-supplied with silo manufacturers. "Where I work, cheapest is best. They have a complete disregard for people's health or welfare. The boss said the big boss in Victoria would have to decide on a change of paint. It would mean a change of the colour that everyone knows them by. And lead-free paint is more expensive." He can't understand why govt bans lead in domestic paint but allows it for industrial applications. "As long as it's there and it's cheaper, people are going to use it."

He contacted LEADLINE after getting hold of a 'Lead Alert' brochure. "I don't want to end up getting killed in 30 years time like the farmers who used DDT." He insists that his work clothes are washed separately at home. "A lot of the other workers have kids - they all take it home to their kids."

LEADLINE advised him to use a HEPA and carbon filter mask. He bought his own, for hygiene reasons, and changes the filter weekly. He is more aware of health risks now, washes his hands really carefully, scrubs under his fingernails. "But nobody else really worries about it. They all think ifs a bit of a joke."

Inquirer 3 is the wife of a man who has been a mechanic for 34 years and a petrol station proprietor for the last 8 years. Her husband has "been crook for the last 6 years, he just kept getting worse each year. Really bad headaches, no energy - just really crook." The symptoms are worse in the summer - "Something is different for him in the summer to what it is in the winter. He reckons he can't take another summer in the job. He kept going back to the doctors, he even went down to a specialist in Brisbane, but they just kept telling him to take a holiday, they just said it was stress. But he loves his work." His blood pressure is borderline high. He used to have a fantastic memory, but he's really noticing how bad it is now.

He gets exposed to fumes while serving petrol, and used to wash a lot of things in petrol, though he doesn't do so much of that now, he has a different way of cleaning.

Last summer one day "he was so bad, he had an awful headache, and he collapsed. The doctor was testing him for Ross River fever, but then he (the husband) asked for a lead test." His blood lead level was 0.9 mol/L (19 g/dL). It was at this point that the wife came upon a 'Lead Alert brochure and contacted LEADLINE. She was sent a lot of printed information which she read but which she hasn't shown her husband yet - "He's got enough worries." She says that the value to her of speaking to LEADLINE has been that "Its made me realise we have to get out of the business."

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