Q&A: PUBLIC HEALTH TAKES ON LEAD POISONING AT WORK

When we think about people at risk of lead poisoning, we may think about children exposed to lead-based paint, or those exposed to lead through certain hobbies. But did you know that thousands of workers in this country are exposed to lead at their workplaces – day in and day out? Alarmingly, the federal and Washington state worker health & safety standards to protect those workers are inadequate and are based on outdated science from the 1970s. In addition, workers of color in King County are at particular risk for lead poisoning because of the types of jobs they do.

We sat down with Steve Whittaker with Public Health’s Environmental Services Division and the Local Hazardous Waste Management Program (LHWMP) to find out more about this problem and what Public Health is doing to protect workers in King County and across Washington state. Steve is a toxicologist with many years of experience in this topic area.

Why is Public Health concerned about lead poisoning in the workplace?
The outbreak of lead poisoning at Wade’s Eastside Guns in 2011-2012 was a reminder to many of us that federal and Washington state health and safety regulations designed to protect workers from lead exposure have not kept up with modern science. These regulations were put into place decades ago, before we had evidence of the harmful effects of relatively low-level exposures to lead. Now we know that much lower levels of exposure than are allowed in the standards actually put workers and their families at risk. The Wade’s lead poisoning outbreak highlighted the importance of updating our occupational lead standards to reflect 21st century science to protect workers from lead levels that could cause serious health problems.

Why is Public Health concerned about the existing state and federal occupational lead standards?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is no safe level of lead exposure. For adults, a blood lead level of 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of whole blood or higher exceeds CDC’s “case definition” of an elevated blood lead level. However, as I’ve said, both our federal and state’s current lead standards are based on scientific knowledge from the 1970s. In short, workers can legally be exposed to levels of lead that are associated with serious health effects, like cardiovascular disease, infertility, and miscarriage. Women exposed to lead in their workplaces can also expose their unborn children to lead, which can result in birth defects. Workers can also inadvertently take lead home on their clothes, tools, and shoes, exposing their families and posing a special risk to children in the home.

What are the exposure levels that are allowed under current regulations?
Under current state and federal current regulations, workers may have blood lead levels as high as 60 micrograms per deciliter before they must be “medically removed” from lead exposures at work. This is 12 times higher than the CDC’s reference level for adults.

Is this an equity and social justice issue?
Yes. We reviewed the lead poisoning data for adult residents of King County and found that many workers of color are working in industries where they are likely to experience lead poisoning – both in general industry and the construction trades. Most cases of occupational poisoning in King County are associated with work in battery manufacturing, bridge painting, and gun ranges. Hispanic and Asian workers are at particular risk. And again, workers can bring lead home on their tools, clothing and shoes, so a child can also become lead poisoned without ever setting foot in their parent’s workplace.

What is Public Health doing about this?
Public Health developed a series of recommendations for revising Washington’s out-of-date regulations to ensure that workers maintain their blood lead levels below 10 micrograms per deciliter. Our recommendations to update Washington state’s occupational lead standards are similar to those currently being considered in California. They will be submitted to Washington State Labor & Industries (L&I), which is the agency that administers the state worker health and safety regulations in Washington state.

The recommendations require:

  • Reductions in the concentrations of lead in air that workers can be exposed to (i.e., the action level and permissible exposure limit),
  • Lowering the blood lead level that prompts medical removal from work until it is safe to return,
  • Enhanced medical monitoring for lead-related health problems, and
  • Other improvements to protective clothing, hygiene practices, training, and education.

What else is Public Health doing?
In 2012, Public Health asked Governor Inslee and L&I to update our outdated occupational lead standards. As a result, L&I convened a series of meetings to gather stakeholder input. L&I opened the rulemaking process in 2016 and we expect them to release a draft of updated rules in 2017.

We also testified on this subject to the King County Board of Health in July, 2016 and prepared a resolution, which was adopted by the Board.

We are also presenting our recommendations at L&I’s lead stakeholder meeting, to be held in their Tukwila office on October 26th, 2016. Here is a link to our fact sheet.

Where can I get more information?
More information about Public Health’s recommendations and L&I’s stakeholder process is available at www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Rules/WhatsNew/LeadSafety/default.asp.

(Featured image via Harvard Medical School: http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/lead-poisoning-201602029120)