Lead is an extremely versatile, but toxic, metal that has been used by manufacturers throughout history. It was commonly added as a corrosion inhibitor in paints for houses and buildings up until 1977 when it was banned for this purpose by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) due to safety concerns. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about half of the homes built in the USA before 1978 have lead-based paint. The likelihood of encountering lead-based paint increases with the age of the building and the EPA estimates that two out of three homes built between 1940 and 1960, and nine out of ten homes built before 1940 contain lead-based paint.
The Dangers of Lead Poisoning
Lead does not readily enter the body through the skin via simple touch. However, it can enter the body through the inhalation of lead dust, where it passes through the lungs into the bloodstream. People can also ingest lead dust, via contaminated hands, clothing, and surfaces, as they perform actions that result in hand-to-mouth contact (such as eating, drinking, or smoking). Once it gets in the body, lead can cause severe health problems.
As outlined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), studies have linked chronic lead exposure in adults with impaired kidney function, high blood pressure, and cognitive dysfunction later in life. For children, especially those under the age of six, even mild lead poisoning can damage the nervous system, resulting in lifelong developmental and behavioral problems. Lead is especially toxic to developing fetuses, so people who are pregnant (or trying to become pregnant) should be especially careful to limit prenatal exposure. Pets can also experience lead poisoning. Higher concentrations of lead in the blood can result in symptoms such as:
- lower reaction times
- attention deficiency
- joint and muscle pain
Extreme lead exposure can result in convulsions, coma, and in some cases, death.
Common Sources of Lead Exposure
Lead is an important industrial metal, so the potential of exposure exists for workers in many types of businesses, including construction, manufacturing, wholesale trade, transportation, even recreation. People can also be exposed as a result of the use, maintenance, recycling, and disposal of materials and products containing lead. Outside of the manufacturing sector, a primary source of lead exposure is from dust and flakes of deteriorating lead-paint found in older houses and commercial buildings. This lead dust can contaminate food, water, and air. It can also cling to the clothing and shoes of workers who are exposed to lead (for example, construction workers renovating an old building) and be transported to another area. The EPA has found that even general residential renovations in older homes are associated with an increased risk of elevated lead blood levels in children. This is why using the correct personal protective equipment (PPE), such as disposable full-body suits, and following safety procedures are so important when working around lead-based paint.
Dealing with Lead Paint
The EPA created the Lead-Based Paint, Renovation, Repair, and Painting (RRP) Program to help protect both workers and the public from lead dust generated by construction, renovation, and painting projects. It requires that projects that disturb lead-based paint in structures built before 1978 must be completed by certified renovators who follow specific safety practices for containing and removing lead-based paint (a process called lead abatement) to prevent the spread of lead dust outside of the worksite. According to the Center for Construction Research and Training, four methods can be used to either contain or permanently get rid of lead-based paint:
- Replacement Abatement — the building parts with lead-based paint on them are completely removed and replaced.
- Enclosure Abatement — the areas with lead-based paint are completely enclosed with a solid barrier.
- Encapsulation Abatement — surfaces with lead-based paint are coated with a protective substance.
- Paint Removal — the lead-based paint is removed from all surfaces using wet-scrapers, heat guns, sanders, and chemical strippers.
Each of these methods comes with its own set of pros and cons. For example, enclosing or encapsulating abatement are generally faster and more affordable options, but they also aren’t permanent solutions. Meanwhile, removing lead-based paint or replacing parts of the building can create a lot of dust -- increasing the risk of contamination — but they also permanently take care of the lead-based paint. Regardless of which methods are used, it’s important to follow safety procedures to cut down on producing lead dust. These include using a wet mister and HEPA vacuum on any building parts that are being worked on to lessen the creation of dust and securely sealing the work area with plastic sheeting to prevent lead-dust from escaping.
Staying Safe with Personal Protective Equipment
It’s important that workers protect themselves against lead by wearing personal protective equipment. Protective clothing comes in a variety of materials to guard against different hazards. In most cases, the paper-like fiber used for quality disposable suits provides effective protection against dust and splashes encountered on lead abatement projects. The suits should be carefully inspected before each use and must fit each worker properly — too loose, and the suit can catch and tear; too tight, and it can restrict movement. Workers should be wearing respirators and bodysuits whenever they enter the worksite. They should also wear earplugs or earmuffs, as the tools needed to remove lead-based paint create high levels of noise that can potentially damage hearing and increase stress levels.
In addition to wearing the correct PPE, other precautions to follow when working around lead include:
- Washing your hands and face each time you leave the work area.
- Avoiding hand-to-mouth actions like eating, drinking, smoking (or vaping), or putting on makeup near the worksite.
- Taking a shower at the end of the workday.
It is of utmost importance that workers leave all work clothing, including headgear and footwear, at the site since these items can potentially be contaminated with lead dust.
Lead is a dangerous substance when handled improperly. However, using quality PPE and following safety procedures will significantly reduce the risk associated with working around sources of lead contamination. If you need durable and disposable protective clothing to shield workers against lead exposure, contact the experts at International Enviroguard. They offer an extensive selection of disposable protective clothing, chemical suits, cleanroom apparel, and other PPE products for a variety of industries and will help you find the best solution to keep your workers safe.