LEAD Action News vol 4 no 3 Winter 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.
Lead Worker: a Case History
by Robin Mosman, Project Officer, NSW Community Lead Advisory Service
The steady stream of inquiries from workers affected by lead, which started with LEADLINE, continues. A disturbing claim made by the mostly male inquirers is the difficulty they have experienced in getting information and appropriate medical advice, often from the very government organisations whose role is ostensibly the protection of workers' health.
The following inquirer's case is the most extreme of which The LEAD Group has so far heard. The degree of poisoning was a massive 12.5 Ámol/L (micromoles per litre) blood lead. The recommended National Health and Medical Research Council level for all Australians is 0.48 Ámol/L, and for workers 2.4 Ámol/L.
The lead poisoning of this inquirer took place in 1981, when he was 24, working performing fire assay duties at a gold mine. "This involved mixing lead litharge with ore samples, and reducing by furnace the sample to silica and a metal compound. The silica was then discarded and the metal further reduced to a gold and silver alloy by oxidising and evaporating the lead off to atmosphere in another furnace. There was also a similar operation performed for bullion samples." During furnace operation, the only personal protection provided was "heat shielding of body, face, arms and hands. The laboratory was not fitted with powered extractors above any of the 3 furnaces." Prior to his employment, the fire assay laboratory was rarely used, all assay work being done by Atomic Absorption Spectrometry.
After several months working at these duties, he began to feel "weak and tired," and experienced extreme loss of appetite. At about this time, his supervisor happened to observe "fumes from the oxidising furnace issuing into the lab during my operation of removing samples and installing fresh ones, a task I repeated several times a day. From my viewpoint directly in front of the intense heat (furnace temperature 1100 degrees C), I was unaware of the fumes which I was inhaling, and had been for months."
"My supervisor was concerned about the fumes he had observed and requested that I have a blood test. As a result of the blood test, the relevant regulatory body contacted the company and told them I had to be removed from lead exposure. I was placed on outside duties."
He continued feeling weak and exhausted, his weight dropped from 70 to 52 kg, and he experienced "regular bouts of uncontrollable shaking associated with a feeling of shock, which would start for no apparent reason and last for a few hours. The shaking was so severe that I was unable to hold a cup and saucer with 2 hands." His skin became unnaturally pallid - "my whole body was white. I went home to see my parents and my mother said `why are you wearing white gloves?', but it was just the colour of my skin" - and remained so for 3 to 4 months after his lead exposure ceased.
No medical treatment was provided. His blood lead was monitored for about 6 weeks while he was still with the mining company.
"At the time of the lead poisoning I received no medical treatment and no guidance apart from being removed from lead exposure."
Some weeks later he left the job, unaware of the seriousness of his condition, making no claim at the time because of "severe lassitude, causing lack of motivation, confusion and loss of thinking ability" which affected his ability to make clear decisions.
He did however continue to have blood samples taken until, 4 months after the first test, the Department notified him that his most recent reading of 5 Ámol/L was satisfactory. He also made an attempt to inquire about the long-term consequences of his lead poisoning. "I was interviewed by an officer of the Department of Health and Medical Services, the department responsible for the blood sampling of lead workers. When I voiced my concerns, he did not take my questions seriously and basically told me I had nothing to worry about and my concerns were out of place."
Two years later, in 1983, he was experiencing major health effects. Chronic fatigue was a major problem. He continued to work, but had no energy left for anything else. He suffered from frequent depression, severe enough to necessitate medical treatment. His attention span was short, his memory poor. In 1982 the hearing in his right ear began to deteriorate. By 1983 the hearing loss was almost total, and the left ear was also deteriorating, though at a slower rate.
He went to his G.P who referred him to a consulting physician. However, the doctor "did not know about lead and had to refer elsewhere. His source was the Director of the same regulatory body whose responsibility it is to ensure that lead poisoning does not occur in the workers of this state. In retrospect, I feel this is like asking the fox to guard the chickens. It certainly was not in the department's interest to highlight the serious nature of lead poisoning symptoms." The physician's advice to him (based on the Health Department's advice) was that "my symptoms would clear in time. He further informed me that the only treatment available was chelation which in itself was toxic."
He then went to his Union, which simply sent him to its solicitor. The solicitor saw the letter from the consulting physician, and told him that because of it and the fact that he was still working, he had no case. He was not informed of the fact that there was a 6 year limit for bringing an action for compensation.
Since then, his low energy levels, short attention span, poor memory and hand tremors have made it impossible for him to continue in his work as a scientific instrument maker, because it is precision work requiring constant updating. He suffers from massive mood swings which have put his marriage under great strain.
His wife, a nurse, describes him as "a highly intelligent man, normally calm and kind, a joy to be with" who will suddenly become highly upset, even enraged, by very minor, illogical things, and when the rage is passed, "will cry like a baby." Of his chronic fatigue she says " He doesn't drink or smoke, he takes no drugs or medication, he eats very healthily - and he is like an old man. He is only 37 and he is like an old man. He is always, always tired. All he can do is to go to work, and to rest. All the energy he has is for going to work."
She considers that the way in which he has been treated is "the way you might expect someone to be treated in a third world country, not in Australia."
This man has recently viewed Health Department records which show that his blood lead levels are the highest recorded in his state. Yet the fact that he has been able to continue in paid work, though at a huge personal cost, and that he is "out of time" through misinformation generated by that same department, may mean he will receive no compensation for a lifetime of ill-health and even worse prospects for his future.
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Updated 26 November 2012