The main cause of lead poisoning in adults is the inhalation/ingestion of lead dust, fumes or vapours (e.g. workers in smelters, refineries or industries that process lead). Some examples of processes that carry a high risk of lead poisoning include:
- blast removal, burning and stripping of old lead paint;
- scrap-processing activities, including recovering lead from scrap and waste;
- working with metallic lead and alloys containing lead, e.g. soldering;
- lead smelting, refining, alloying and casting;
- manufacturing leaded glass;
Symptoms of lead poisoning vary depending on the amount of lead that enters the body:
- Low levels of exposure can cause memory and concentration problems, muscle and joint pain, and can affect nervous system function.
- High levels of exposure have been associated with nerve disorders, digestive problems and, in extreme cases, death.
Unfortunately, many individuals show no outward signs of lead poisoning so a person could have an elevated blood lead level yet appear healthy and show no signs of lead poisoning. However, early signs of lead poisoning include fatigue, headaches, irritability and a metallic taste in the mouth. Later signs of lead poisoning include memory problems, nausea, kidney problems, weight loss, constipation, and weak wrists or ankles.
Lead enters the bloodstream and accumulates in organs (especially the liver, kidneys and brain), tissues, bones and teeth. Prolonged and repeated exposure increases the levels of lead in the body. Some lead is excreted through bodily fluids, however, the remainder is stored in the bones and is virtually impossible to remove once it has settled in the skeletal system. Pregnant women should be especially cautious of lead exposure as lead can pass the placental barrier from the mother to the unborn child, which can poison the fetus before birth.
Employers have a duty by law to protect employees from the dangers of lead poisoning. Risk assessments should be performed for employees who are likely to be exposed to lead and precautions should be taken to protect workers whose blood lead levels may become dangerously high. These precautions include:
- putting in place systems of work and controls (e.g. extraction ventilation equipment) which must be kept in good working order;
- offering information on the health risks associated with lead and precautions to take;
- training staff on control methods and protective equipment;
- providing staff with washing, changing, refreshment facilities.
The Health for Work Adviceline can help employers understand their responsibilities towards employees who are exposed to lead, including measuring the amount of lead in the air, issuing staff with respiratory protective equipment if the levels are above the occupational exposure limit, and arranging for blood tests to measure lead levels. For free advice from an occupational health expert on this or any other employee health issue, call 0800 0 77 88 44.