HRA: Antiquated OSHA Lead Standards Fail to Protect Americans

While the United States has dramatically reduced environmental lead levels since the 1970s, new findings show that Americans who work with lead and their families are still at risk of developing serious chronic health conditions, according to UC Berkeley's Health Research for Action (HRA).

A recent issue of HRA’s Perspectives pointed out, "As scientific evidence has shown more serious health effects associated with lower lead levels than previously anticipated, the number of persons who must be considered at risk increases dramatically.”

HRA says that OSHA, however, has ignored more than 30 years of medical evidence showing that its lead regulations are no longer protective. These standards were introduced in 1978 to protect industrial workers from acute lead exposure, but a growing body of research shows compelling evidence of harm from long-term exposure to much lower levels of lead than OSHA allows in the workplace. Family members can be poisoned by lead dust on workers' clothing, increasing the risk of developmental problems in young children.

Even lower levels of lead in the blood over time are associated with some of the major chronic conditions that contribute to skyrocketing U.S. health care costs:

  • Increased blood pressure in workers whose blood lead levels are far lower than the levels OSHA allows. Hypertension increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and chronic kidney disease.
  • Decreased kidney function, which may be even worse in people who are already at risk for kidney disease because of hypertension or diabetes.
  • Decreased brain function and intellectual activity in adults whose lead levels are lower than OSHA-allowed limits.
  • Reproductive problems, especially with low to moderate levels of lead exposure during pregnancy. These include an increased risk of spontaneous abortion and harmful effects on fetal growth and brain development.

The national Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics concluded that the evidence "speaks forcefully for an immediate reduction in permissible exposure levels [of lead] in the workplace." Dr. Philip Landrigan, an expert on lead toxicity at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said, “The continuing overexposure of American workers to lead and the persistent occurrence of occupational lead poisoning is a national scandal."

Workers in manufacturing, mining and construction are particularly vulnerable to dangerous levels of lead exposure. So are lead workers in small shops and businesses that have no lead safety program, and are not aware of the risks of working with lead.

The Perspectives article, "Indecent Exposure: Lead Puts Workers and Families at Risk," calls for the revision of OSHA standards and recommends a range of actions to better protect workers. These include eliminating unnecessary uses of lead, substituting safer compounds and expanding education and outreach for employers and workers.

"Clearly, current workplace standards are not protecting workers and their families from unsafe lead exposure. Ignoring the mountains of evidence is no longer an option," said Holly Brown-Williams, one of the authors. "Health problems caused by lead can, and must, be prevented."

Health Research for Action (HRA) publishes the Perspectives series to address critical health policy issues and provide constructive recommendations. The March 2009 issue is available on the HRA Web site at: http://healthresearchforaction.org/perspectives/occupational-lead-exposure.pdf.

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