Lead Poisoning & OSHA

Is it time to reconsider?

Richard Fairfax
May 27, 2019

I recently read a piece on lead poisoning in the May 2019 edition of Scientific American magazine in the “50, 100 & 150 Years Ago” section. The short write-up was entitled 1969 – Lead Poisoning Epidemic and reads as follows:

“Though lead pigments were eliminated from interior paints in the U. S. some 20 years ago, multiple layers of lead-based paint still cover the walls and woodwork in many old houses and apartments. Therefore, lead poisoning, once an occupational hazard for painters, is now primarily a disease of small children and toddlers between one and five who live in slum housing and nibble steadily at the paint that flakes off dilapidated walls and can be gnawed off peeling windowsills. At a conference at Rockefeller University in March (1969) participants estimated that lead poisoning in children is much more prevalent than is generally assumed, but they pointed out that the ‘silent epidemic’ could be eliminated by aggressive medical, social, and legal action.”

This short piece called to mind all the successful work that has been done to reduce lead exposure among workers throughout this country. This article came from 1969, before there was an OSHA. OSHA came into being a year later and then eight years after that issued a comprehensive lead standard in 1978 (29 CFR 1910.1025). That standard contained provisions for medical removal for workers with an elevated blood lead level. The OSHA Lead Standard required workers to be removed from lead exposure when BLLs (blood lead levels) were equal to or greater than 50 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) (construction industry) or 60 µg/dL (general industry) and provided that a worker could only return to work when his or her BLL was below 40 µg/dL. This medical removal criterion is still in effect now, 41 years later.

In 2015, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) designated a blood lead level of 5 µg/dL of whole blood, in venous blood sample, as the reference blood lead level for adults. An elevated BLL is defined as a BLL ≥5 µg/dL. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that BLLs among all adults be reduced to less than 10 µg/dL.

I think it is time for OSHA to revisit the lead standard and take a specific look at the safe level for medical removal based upon a worker’s blood lead level.

In case you are wondering about children’s blood lead levels today, this is what the CDC says:

“Today at least 4 million households have children living in them that are being exposed to high levels of lead. There are approximately half a million U.S. children ages 1-5 with blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), the reference level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.”

“No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body. Because lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized. CDC’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program is committed to the Healthy People 2020 goals of eliminating blood lead levels ≥ 10 µg/dL and differences in average risk based on race and social class as public health concerns.”

The CDC program is part of the National Center for Environmental Health’s Division of Environmental Health Science and Practice. 

Richard Fairfax

Richard Fairfax is a subject matter expert and principal consultant for NSC. Prior to that, he was director of enforcement programs and deputy assistant secretary for OSHA.

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