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California workers show high lead levels in blood

California workers show high lead levels in blood

Nearly 16% of workers tested by the California Occupational Blood Lead Registry had high blood lead levels, according to a report released by the state’s Occupational Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.

The registry, a laboratory-based tracking system for adult blood lead tests, tested 38,440 workers between 2012 and 2014 and found 6,051 of them exhibited elevated blood lead levels. Of 14,002 workers tested two or more times within that period 1,782 tested at the elevated level, according to the data, released earlier this month. 

Chronic exposure at this level, defined in the report as at or above 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, increases the risk for chronic health effects including hypertension, kidney disease, cognitive dysfunction and adverse reproductive outcomes, according to the report.

The report found that 14% of those with high lead levels worked in the construction sector, while 60% of the workers with elevated levels worked in the manufacturing sector, primarily in industries that make batteries, aircraft, aircraft parts, plumbing fixtures or metal valves; build or repair ships; or recover lead from scrap. 

Specifically, elevated levels were reported among workers in industries that handle lead-containing bullets and firearms, such as shooting ranges, ammunition manufacturing, gun repair and firearm instruction. 

The report also singled out men with Hispanic surnames as among those with the highest blood lead levels, noting that “California’s workforce was 42% Hispanic … whereas the proportion of Hispanic surnames among individuals with elevated (blood lead levels) reported to the registry was 63 (to) 64%.” 

According to researchers, the report is not a complete picture of lead exposure among workers. “Since many employers in industries that use or disturb lead do not regularly offer (blood lead level) testing to their workers, data presented in this report do not fully describe the magnitude and distribution of elevated (blood lead levels) among California workers.” 

Based on the findings of this report, the Sacramento, California-based Occupational Lead Poisoning Prevention Program said it has initiated new prevention activities to protect workers and to increase blood lead level testing. Specifically, researchers recommended that Cal/OSHA lower the blood lead level at which workers must be removed from lead exposure — the levels currently used are from 35 years ago — and increase the required frequency of testing, requiring testing for all workplaces where lead is used or distributed, regardless of air lead levels, and that the permissible exposure limit be lowered.


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