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QUESTION: Could washing my husband's dusty airplane refinisher's work clothes have lead poisoned myself & my child? 25/02/11 Queensland, Australia

My 8 year old daughter had most of the educational/behavioural symptoms listed for lead poisoning. Specifically the Expressive/Receptive is has been assessed as severe, we are testing her Central Auditory Processing next week as we suspect she also has this disorder. The behavioural and social aspects are there as well as the developmental delays. My husband was an aircraft refinisher at the time of my pregnancy and my Childs' early years of development. Because he stripped, sanded and spray painted various aircraft including Russian fighter jets, I was wondering if you think any of these have a lead content big enough to have poisoned myself or my child. Everyday I washed his clothes and that were caked in dust and paint and chips of metal filings. Any information at all would be appreciated and whether it would still be detectable in our blood 3 years after he ceased working there. The paint that was used was Akzo Noble ( formally U.S Paints). Thankyou.

ANSWER: Feb 25 2011

Dear Rebekah,

it is always worth asking the doctor for blood lead tests (for the whole family) because:

  1. there may be a current source of lead exposure, and
  2. lead that is stored in the bones may well be leaching into the bloodstream,
  3. a blood lead test that returns a very low result - less than 2 micrograms per decilitre (which is equal to less than 0.1 micromoles per litre - which may be the only unit used by your particular pathology lab) - is confirmation that neither a) nor b) is occurring to any great extent.

A low blood lead test result now does not however exclude the possibility of high lead exposure three years ago - but it would mean that any lead that was stored in the bones up to the change in your husband's employment three years ago is not yet leaching back into the blood - and that is a good thing to know. (You will likely need to explain all this to the doctor when you ask for the blood lead tests - many doctors will be inclined to send you away with no tests because they don't know enough about the biokinetics of lead.)

Until the 1st January 2010, all airplane surface coatings were permitted to have ANY amount of lead added to the paint. Lead levels 20% or 30% or even up to 50% lead have been used in some paints over recent decades, but the US Department of Housing and Urban Development sets the criterion for paints that could poison a child when sanded as 0.5% lead. As of 1st January 2010, no lead is permitted to be added to any paint (with the exception of artists' paints) in Australia. Australia is the first country and still the only country in the world to have this ban on adding lead to paints so you can be pretty much guaranteed that most if not all of the paints your husband worked with, were leaded, indeed potentially highly leaded.

According to Australia's state Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) regulations, your husband should have been given by his employer, the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) of all the chemicals eg paints, he was required to work on. Did you mean that Akzo Noble made the paints that he was applying to the planes? If the employer didn't give him MSDSs by Akzo Noble, he could search online for them at http://web.archive.org/web/20120130160421/http://www.akzonobel.com/hpmo/msds/

Unfortunately, for refinishers, the usual scenario is that the MSDS of the new coatings are supplied but the critical MSDS is for the coatings that are already on the plane - these are the ones that are typically dry-sanded during preparation for re-coating, so these are the ones that lead to the greatest potential hazards exposure. But the Australian state OH&S regulations are designed to cover this too. The employer is legally-bound to identify any hazards in the workplace before a worker is sent in and in your husband's case that would mean identifying any hazards in the coatings on the planes. The employer is then required to develop and implement a hazard management plan. The wearing of dusty work clothes home by the worker, for washing by his spouse is definitely NOT part of any hazard management plan. Can he ask his employer-up-to-three-years-ago to show you their hazard identification report and hazard management plan? Any hazard management plan in which lead is identified as one of the hazards of the job, must include regular blood lead tests for the worker. You should also request these results from the employer.

I am very happy to comment on all your blood lead results when you get them - ask the doctor for a copy of the lab reports - but as for whether there is a way to determine now whether you were all exposed to lead up to three years ago, I will email you, separately, our Info pack: "Case management after earlier lead poisoning" which covers the topics of bone XRF lead testing, urine chelation challenge lead testing, urine chelation challenge lead testing and tooth lead testing.

All the best with your investigation.

Yours Sincerely

Elizabeth O'Brien

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