Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Occupational Lead Exposure

   It’s been a while! We hope everyone is enjoying a safe, winter holiday season. I thought I would take a brief look a lead exposure in the workplace.
   Lead is a metal element with the chemical symbol Pb, (from the Latin plumbum, the same root word as plumbing) that is classified as one of the heavy metals. Unlike some other metals, such as iron, zinc, and copper, it has no known function in human biology, and is considered a major toxic metal. Lead is used in a wide variety of industrial applications, including from the production of solder, batteries, bullets, and various alloys, such as linotype.
   In humans, lead functions primarily as a neurotoxin, affecting the nervous system, although it can affect the blood, gastrointestinal system, and others. It has a particularly drastic effect on young children.  A direct correlation has been established between lead exposure and IQ loss in young children. Lead can cross the placental barrier to a developing fetus, if the mother’s blood level is elevated. Children also spend more time crawling around on the floor, exposed to dust and paint chips that can contain lead, putting them at more risk of lead poisoning.
   In adults, lead is most commonly seen as an occupational exposure. Workers engaged in processes that use lead can experience symptoms related to the exposure, if proper protective measures are not observed. Lead was a common component in paints and pigments in the past, and so any workers that have to disturb these coatings are also at risk. Abdominal pain, insomnia, personality changes, and unusual taste in the mouth, kidney failure, and headache are some common symptoms, but the route of exposure, as well as the dose, will determine the exact symptoms, due to the fact that lead can inhibit the function of many different body systems.
   The first step for any employer that may have lead exposure to its employees is to perform an assessment of the workplace to determine what types of protective measures are appropriate. Part of this assessment may include having the air sampled to see if lead is present in the air that employees are breathing. It may be necessary to test employees periodically, if lead is a potential problem. Blood tests are usually used to detect short-term exposure to lead. Chronic exposure usually leads to lead deposition in the bones. Periodic retesting is a common requirement in facilities that use or generate lead as a normal part of business. After the hazard assessment is performed, then engineering controls, such as ventilation, work practice controls, or personal protective equipment, (especially respiratory protection) can be implemented to ensure worker safety. Employees will also need to be trained to understand the hazards, and to make sure that they know how to protect themselves.
   Lead exposure in the workplace is a large subject, and this is just a very brief overview, but the problem is easily addressable if the employer takes and active approach in protecting worker safety. The consequences for ignoring the problem, however, can be quite severe, and can lead to extreme illness, or death.

- Jason

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