CONTACT: DAVE PEDERSEN
2130 Medical Laboratories
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 335-8032; fax (319) 335-8034
Release: Sept. 15, 1999
Lead exposure still a problem for construction workers,
UI study finds
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Lead exposure continues to be a
problem for some workers in the construction industry, according to University
of Iowa researchers who studied workers in Iowa and Illinois.
From 1994 to 1996, UI investigators, led by Stephen
J. Reynolds, Ph.D., associate professor of occupational and environmental
health, interviewed and collected blood samples from 459 union members from
trade groups of painters, plumbers/pipefitters, ironworkers, laborers and
electricians in the two states. The goal was to characterize the prevalence
of blood lead concentrations by construction trade and to identify risk factors
for lead exposure among these workers.
"It's been known for some time that lead is a significant
health problem in the construction industry," Reynolds said. "Our study is
one of the few to look at the whole population of workers from these trade
groups, not just the workers who we already knew were having problems with
Among all the construction workers involved in the
study, the researchers found an average blood lead level of 4.7 micrograms
of lead per deciliter (dL) of blood. This is only slightly higher than the
U.S. national average of 3 micrograms per dL. However, differences were found
between certain trade groups. Blood lead levels among laborers (an average
of 7.6 micrograms per dL) and painters (an average of 5.9 micrograms per dL)
were highest, while levels among electricians (an average of 2.4 micrograms
per dL) were lowest.
"The findings were in line with what we expected,"
Reynolds said. "Several of these trades involve projects that put workers
at greater risk. Laborers, for example, reported performing duties such as
median cutting, blow-off of lead-containing dust from exposed beams and cleanup
during renovation of bridges. Each of these activities would increase their
risk of exposure."
The researchers found that elevated blood lead levels
were associated with the type of work performed, especially bridge renovation,
residential remodeling and activities that included welding, cutting or rivet
Information about potential risk factors outside the
workplace also was collected. More than 325 of the study subjects reported
owning homes built before 1980 and having done remodeling which included paint
removal, plumbing and soldering or welding. Hobbies with a potential for lead
exposure -- such as stained glass, riflery/shooting and casting or smelting
lead -- also were identified as important risk factors.
Despite the workers having a higher potential for
exposure, Reynolds and his colleagues found that the blood lead levels of
workers doing lead abatement projects were among the lowest in the study.
These workers knew what the risks were and how to protect themselves, Reynolds
said. This suggests that training, implementation of engineering controls
and proper use of protective equipment such as respirators are effective in
controlling lead exposure, he said.
In 1993 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration
(OSHA) reduced its standard for permissible airborne lead exposure in the
construction industry. At the time, OSHA also released provisions that included
requirements for employer-laundered work clothing, shower and change facilities,
and employee training on the hazards of lead. These provisions are required
only for workers with airborne lead exposures exceeding the OSHA standard.
The researchers reported that these provisions are seldom met; in general,
occupational health and safety practices in the construction industry remain
Lead exposure among construction workers is still
a problem, but it's preventable, Reynolds said.
"Prevention depends on education, awareness and training
of workers, and controls within the workplace," he said. "Construction is
a tough environment to control. It's not like an industrial setting, where
everything is enclosed and easier to deal with. But there are some things
that can be done to protect this workforce and, by extension, protect their
families from secondary exposure."
One important intervention, he said, is to make lead
exposure controls part of construction project specifications before contracts
The study results were published in the August 1999
issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
NOTE TO EDITORS: Stephen Reynolds, Ph.D., can be
reached at (319) 335-4212.