One of a number of possible toxins that workers can potentially be exposed to, lead has made headlines lately for its toxicity in drinking water, but a new study shows lead is also an issue for California workers in munitions, manufacturing and other industries.
A January 2017 study by the Occupational Health Branch of the California Department of Public Health, known as Cal/OSHA, found of the 38,440 workers who had their blood tested for lead from 2012 through 2014, 6,051 workers had elevated levels, according to PBS. An elevated lead level is considered 5 or more micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. The results come as the organization is looking to update its regulations, which are based on 35-year-old medical findings that did not recognize the risks of low-level lead exposure.
“It doesn’t surprise me. This is a huge problem,” Doug Parker, executive director of Worksafe, a worker health and safety advocacy organization based in Oakland, told PBS. It is now known that even low levels of lead exposure over time can cause a host of issues, including heart disease, reproductive problems, cognitive difficulties and kidney failure.
More than half of the workers with elevated exposure levels were in industries that make batteries, aircraft, aircraft parts, plumbing fixtures or metal valves, and those with the highest levels worked mostly with guns and ammunition. A majority also had Hispanic surnames.
“Overexposure to lead continues to be a serious occupational health problem in California in a wide range of industries,” the study concludes. “Workers with sustained elevated BLLs are at risk for serious, long-term health effects.” Researchers warn the actual numbers of those with elevated lead levels is likely higher, as many industries do not regularly test their workers as part of the California Occupational Blood Lead Registry.