Public health officials urge lower lead limits

The American Public Health Association made the recommendation after reading a Tampa Bay Times investigation.
A Tampa Bay Times investigation found that workers at Gopher Resource in Tampa were exposed to extreme amounts of lead.
A Tampa Bay Times investigation found that workers at Gopher Resource in Tampa were exposed to extreme amounts of lead. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sept. 29, 2021

A national public health organization is pushing for sweeping changes to the federal rules designed to keep lead workers safe after a Tampa Bay Times investigation into a Florida lead smelter.

The American Public Health Association called the rules “wholly inadequate to protect workers’ health” — and said the Times’ report highlighted their shortcomings.

The federal regulations, which have not been updated since they were established in 1978, include a limit on the amount of lead workers can have in their blood. Decades of medical research has shown wide-ranging health effects at far lower levels.

“The standard is so off-base from where we need to be,” said Nancy Simcox, an assistant teaching professor at the University of Washington and head of the public health association’s occupational health section.

Earlier this year, the Times found that hundreds of workers at Gopher Resource in Tampa were exposed to extreme amounts of lead.

Levels of the metal in the factory’s air were regularly hundreds of times the federal limit. Many workers wore company-issued respirators that didn’t adequately protect them.

Eight out of 10 workers from 2014 to 2018 had enough lead in their blood to put them at risk of increased blood pressure, kidney damage or cardiovascular disease. At least 14 current and former workers had heart attacks or strokes in the past five years, the Times found. All were younger than 60.

But none of the workers in recent years surpassed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s threshold for too much lead in the blood.

Those findings — particularly the cardiovascular disease among workers with elevated blood-lead levels — prompted the association to write a letter to Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor Jim Frederick, said Simcox.

In a statement to the Times, OSHA said it was reviewing the letter. The agency noted that it plans to review the blood-lead limit and called the review one of several “important actions OSHA is taking to ensure all workers have the health and safety protections they need and deserve in the workplace.”

On average, it takes OSHA more than seven years to issue new standards.

Gopher did not respond to requests for comment. In previous statements, Gopher has said that it cut the average blood-lead levels in half since acquiring the plant in 2006.

Lead is a neurotoxin that accumulates in bone for decades and can cause damage to many systems in the body. Research has demonstrated that even low levels of sustained exposure can result in cognitive, heart and kidney problems. No level of exposure is considered safe.

Thousands of workers across the United States are exposed to lead. The federal OSHA rules apply to people who work in states without their own labor departments, including Florida.

The rules cover smelter workers, like those at Gopher in Tampa, and any employee who could be exposed to certain airborne levels of the metal such as workers at gun ranges or battery-manufacturing plants.

OSHA’s rules require workers to be removed from exposure when their blood-lead levels exceed 60 micrograms per deciliter. That level is triple what the Department of Defense allows for military personnel and 12 times what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers to be elevated in adults.

The average adult has a blood-lead level below 1 microgram per deciliter.

In its letter, the American Public Health Association urged OSHA to update its standard to ensure all workers maintain levels below 5 micrograms per deciliter. Such a change would also require OSHA to update its rules on allowable worker exposure levels to lead in the air.

The association’s letter builds on recommendations it made in 2017 for keeping lead-exposed workers safe. It also adds to the work of numerous professional groups that have called on OSHA to update the agency’s regulations over the past 15 years.

“No one thinks the OSHA lead standards protect health adequately now,” said Dr. Brian Schwartz, an occupational physician and expert in chronic lead exposure at Johns Hopkins University.

The American Public Health Association asked OSHA to explain its plans for updating the standard. Simcox said the agency hadn’t yet responded.

“Lead is an old contaminant that we know a lot about,” she said. “And, we need to be taking action on this one and not waiting.”

This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE, the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.