We told you lead was dangerous

Recycling lead in a lead-acid battery recovery facility by NIOSH - Nat Inst for Occupational Safety & Health.

Earlier this month, this blog reported that although more than half of the lead we use worldwide is recycled, something presented by the industry as a major green advance, production of the known poison, carcinogen, neuro- and reprotoxin is increasing (Lead – a case of right answer, wrong question).

And those workers involved in recycling activities – like processing scrap or dismantling electronic equipment and salvaging the valuable but highly dangerous toxins – could form an increasing part of the at risk but largely ignored workforce.

One factor that has allowed lead, known to be a toxin from antiquity, to persist in our workplaces and general environment, is the extraordinarily complacent workplace exposures standards and guidance around much of the world – and that includes the world’s top two producers, China and the US.

However, official agencies can be embarrassed into action. The UK last week withdrew its lead at work guidance, as a direct result of criticism from Hazards.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the UK government’s official health and safety enforcer, removed advice on the dangers of working with lead from is website and axed the print version of the guide after the Hazards magazine investigation revealed the watchdog greatly under-estimated health risks that could be affecting over 100,000 workers.

The Hazards article said the official health and safety warnings about the dangers of lead were so complacent the watchdog was guilty of “extreme recklessness” with workers’ health. The current UK maximum exposure limit for males is set at 60 microgrammes of lead in 100ml (µg/100ml) of blood, at which level workers must be suspended until their blood lead level falls.

But the Hazards report, ‘Dangerous lead’, points to substantial scientific evidence that much lower levels – as little as 10 to 20 (µg/100ml), a fraction the current UK standard – can cause chronic, long-term ill health. ‘Lead and you’, HSE’s main guidance for workers on the issue – and the guide subsequently retired by the watchdog – takes a different line.

It says: “Serious ill-health problems rarely occur unless people have at least 100 microgrammes of lead per decilitre of blood.” After publication on 6 November 2009 of the Hazards report, HSE admitted the leaflet is misleading and has since removed it from the HSE website and its publications catalogue.

In an HSE statement, the watchdog said the guide would be replaced, adding the new version “will take into account the latest scientific developments and the language used to be clear about risks.”

For now, though, the exposure standard remains unchanged. In October 2009, despite a series of recommendations from HSE expert committees that the lead standard should be reviewed in the light of evidence of risks significantly below the currently permitted exposure levels, HSE told Hazards it had “no intention” of doing anything about it.

However, in November 2009, after publication of the Hazards report and the evidence it presented about risks at a fraction the UK permissible workplace standard, sources within HSE have indicated HSE will now revisit the standard.

The annual general meeting of the Construction Safety Campaign decided last week that the UK should go much, much further. After discussing the Hazards report, a resolution was passed at the meeting calling for “a ban on all uses of lead at work and for zero exposures for workers”.

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