A recent report from the State’s Health Department revealed that thousands of workers in California had highly elevated levels of lead in their blood.
It turns out lead poisoning isn’t just a problem in Flint, Michigan. Blood tests were performed between 2012 and 2014 by the Occupational Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (OLPPP), a division of the California Department of Public Health. OLPPP released a report detailing the results of the testing. Of the 38,440 workers that participated, 6,051 showed elevated blood lead level (BLL), which is defined as more than five micrograms per deciliter (~3.3 ounces) of blood. Lead exposure is toxic even in small amounts and can cause severe mental and physical impairment.
According to the report, workers who tended to have elevated BLL were profiled as male, between the ages of 20 and 59, with a Hispanic surname, living in Southern California in the Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. California’s workforce is approximately 42% Hispanic. The majority of employees (60%) with BLL ≥10 µg/dL worked in manufacturing; such as making batteries, aircrafts or metal parts. Workers who tested BLL ≥40 µg/dL worked in metal-related industries as wrecking and demolition, or professions that require handling ammunition and firearms.
Lead is a naturally occurring element commonly used in the production of products such as industrial equipment, paint, gasoline, stoneware, vinyl, and many more. Given the prevalence of lead for piping systems, it is often found in the earth and has been detected in fruits and vegetables grown in contaminated soil. Lead is not a very hard substance, and the dust can easily be inhaled, swallowed or absorbed by the skin through the handling of lead items. In the United States, OSHA set the permissible limit for lead exposure in the workplace as 0.05 mg/m3 for an 8-hour workday. Lead is especially dangerous to children, as it can be detrimental to development.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences reports that no amount of lead in the blood is safe, and even small amounts have been associated with serious chronic health issues. Some symptoms of repeated lead exposure consist of abdominal pain, aggressive behaviour, irritability, constipation, headaches, high blood pressure, fatigue, memory loss, kidney disfunction and anemia. The Los Angeles Daily News interviewed Doug Parker, the executive director at Worksafe in Oakland, an employee safety and health advocacy organization. “It doesn’t surprise me. This is a huge problem.” Parker is quoted. “Clearly, there haven’t been adequate actions taken”, he added, referring to employers.
Health officials say the data doesn’t accurately describe the “magnitude and distribution of elevated BLLs among California workers” and that the “most significant limitation is that many employers fail to provide BLL testing to their lead-exposed workers”. Other considerations of the study include that the standards used by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) are based on scientific information that is over 35 years old. The OLPPP determines that results of the test require new preventative measures and revised standards to protect workers from exposure to lead.
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