Overlooked: Thousands of Americans Exposed to Dangerous Levels of Lead in Their Jobs

Rules meant to protect workers against on-the-job exposure to lead are scandalously outdated

In contrast, the evidence for lead's subtle effects on the heart is much stronger. Studies over the past 10 years have linked various concentrations of lead in the blood below the 40 mcg/dL threshold permitted by OSHA to high blood pressure, which is a well-known risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Lead likely raises blood pressure through several biochemical processes. Not only does the metal directly damage the delicate layer of cells lining blood vessels, it also hinders our cells from counteracting “free radicals”—highly reactive molecules that can harm various tissues, including those found in the circulatory system. Lead also inactivates a molecule known as nitric oxide and impairs the kidney, both of which are essential to regulating blood pressure. Small amounts of lead raise blood pressure by 1 percent or less, but even such tiny changes turn out to have greater repercussions than initially recognized for people on the border of hypertension and heart trouble.

In one investigation published in 2006, Johns Hopkins's Silbergeld and her colleagues at Tulane University looked at data collected from 13,946 men and women in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 1988 and 1994. After 12 years, individuals who initially had 3.63 mcg/dL were one and a half times more likely to have died from heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular problems than those with levels below 1.93 mcg/dL. An elevated risk of cardiovascular death was still detectable at concentrations as low as 2 mcg/dL. What remains unclear, however, is whether such health risks arise primarily from these very low exposure levels, or if past, higher lead exposures in the older adults surveyed also play a role.

Given that cardiovascular disorders are such a common cause of premature death, anything that increases their risk even a little will translate to many more deaths in the population, experts maintain. One ballpark estimate from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle attributes 20,000 of the 670,000 annual cardiovascular deaths in the U.S. and Canada to lead exposure.

Although fewer workers encounter very high amounts of lead on the job these days, many of them still have too much lead in their blood, given the latest health research. Tens of thousands of workers still have levels exceeding 10 mcg/dL, at which adverse effects can occur, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Consequently, public health experts have urgently called on OSHA to revise its regulations, but so far the agency has taken no action. “It's a profound disappointment and disservice to American workers,” says Howard Hu, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Toronto.

OSHA head David Michaels declined an interview request from Scientific American but e-mailed a statement via a spokesperson: “We recognize that our standard is outdated; this is true of many of OSHA's other chemical standards,” Michaels wrote. “Unfortunately, OSHA's standard-setting process is extremely slow, and there is little that can be done under our current law to speed up that process.”

So it has fallen to others to push awareness and change. In 2010 the CDC made a blood lead level of 10 mcg/dL or higher in adults a “notifiable” condition, which means that physicians and state health departments must report any results that exceed that limit to federal health authorities. This decision followed recommendations published in 2007 by several experts on lead poisoning, which advised doctors to remove workers who have blood lead levels of 20 to 30 mcg/dL from further exposure until their levels drop below 15 mcg/dL.

A handful of health organizations have adopted those guidelines or a modified version, including the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and the California Department of Public Health, which is currently working with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health to toughen the state's lead standards. And many companies have taken their own initiative to reduce on-the-job lead exposures to far below OSHA standards, including RSR Corporation, a major lead-battery recycler. Progress is afoot, but the pace is much too slow for far too many people whose health is on the line or has already been permanently damaged.

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This article was originally published with the title "Lead's Buried Legacy."

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