Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 1998;57(4):731-732

See related article on lead poisoning.

Lead can get into your body in two ways: inhalation (breathing it in) and ingestion (eating it). You might breathe in lead dust or lead fumes without even knowing it. You can swallow lead dust if it gets in your food or drinks. You might even swallow lead dust if you eat without washing your hands first.

Once lead gets into your body, it stays there for a long time. It builds up over time even if you're only exposed to small amounts of it. As lead builds up in your body, it can damage your brain, kidneys, nerves and blood cells.

As a general rule, the more lead you have in your body, the more likely it is that you'll have health problems. Your chance of having health problems goes up the longer you have a high level of lead in your body. We don't know just how much lead causes health problems, because the effects of lead are different in everyone.

What are the signs of lead poisoning? These are some of the early signs of lead poisoning:

  • Tiredness

  • Irritability

  • Muscle and joint pain

  • Headaches

  • Stomachaches and cramps

What is my employer's responsibility for lead in the workplace?

The Lead Standard is a federal and state regulation that requires employers to follow specific guidelines to protect workers from harmful lead exposure. An important part of this standard says that lead in the air of a work-place shouldn't be more than 50 μg per meter, averaged over eight hours. Under the Lead Standard, workers have the right to the following:

  • To receive a copy of the standard.

  • To receive a copy of air monitoring results.

  • To receive medical evaluation and monitoring if they are exposed to airborne lead levels above 30 μg per meter for more than 30 days a year. If this occurs, the employer must provide workers with a medical surveillance program. This program would include blood testing, a lead-specific medical exam, treatment (if needed), removal from further exposure to lead if health is at risk, and medical clearance for use of a respirator. In some circumstances, workers can be transferred to a job that doesn't expose them to lead, without loss of pay or benefits.

Who can help me understand my blood lead test and job exposure?

Your doctor and your company safety officer can help if you're worried about lead exposure. Your doctor can test your blood for lead. The blood lead level test is the most common test used to measure how much lead you have recently been exposed to. This level may be high even before you notice any signs of lead exposure. The level of lead in the air of your workplace may also be high without your knowing it.

Your doctor can also help you understand your lead level and the effects it might have on your health. It's important for your doctor to know that you are exposed to lead at work even if you don't notice any health problems.

The company safety officer can help you find out if your work area has been checked for high levels of lead in the air. He or she can also help you avoid exposure by giving you protective equipment.

How can I protect myself from lead exposure?

You can start protecting yourself and your family right away with these basic safe work practices:

  • Wear separate work clothes and shoes or boots while at work.

  • Don't wear your work clothes and shoes or boots home from work, and don't wear them when you aren't at work.

  • Wash and dry your work clothes separately. Don't mix your work clothes with clothes from other people in your family when the laundry is done.

  • Wash your hands and face before you eat, drink or smoke.

  • At work, eat, drink or smoke only in areas that are free of lead dust and fumes.

  • Avoid stirring up lead-containing dust with dry sweeping; wet cleaning is safer.

  • If you wear a respirator at work, make sure it fits well.

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Copyright © 1998 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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