Lead has served humans in many versatile applications for thousands of years. However, it’s also a source of serious health conditions such as hypertension, stomach problems, memory loss, miscarriages and many other disorders. Employers have responsibilities towards employees who may encounter lead as a hazard at work. Health Screen is one of few companies in the UK who provide this service
How extensive is lead use in the UK today?
Malleable and non-rusting lead was widely used in water pipes from Roman times until the 20th century. Although no longer used for carrying modern water supplies, some aged systems still have sections of lead piping. Once the toxicity of lead in certain applications was realised, manufacturers and designers made a concerted effort to find alternatives. Lead has now been removed from paint, petrol and electrical solder, but has current applications in laboratories, batteries, roofing, and recycling.
COSSH regulations and biological monitoring of lead
It’s vital to monitor safety standards in areas where individuals may encounter lead as a potential hazard. As well as monitoring the environment itself, COSSH regulations require biological monitoring of employees to ensure control measures are working. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive’s definition of biological monitoring is: “the measurement and assessment of early biological effects caused by absorption of chemicals”.
Flint: proving the case for biological monitoring
It’s hard to overstate the importance of biological monitoring where lead is present, and it’s still a cause for concern in the 21st century. Lead in drinking water was one of the major causes of serious health problems in the crisis-hit city of Flint, Michigan. Symptoms began almost immediately the city authorities switched water supplies from that of Detroit to their own Flint River in 2014. This was due in part to lead leaching from the aged water pipes because of the higher acidity of the new supply.
However, it wasn’t until the following summer that the extent of the problem became clear. The highest home water sample had over 157 parts lead per billion, when a level of just 5 parts per billion would be cause for concern by the Environmental Protection Agency! Many of Flint’s citizens will now have serious lifelong health issues resulting from high levels of lead absorption.
Why a monitoring strategy is key
Biological monitoring for lead should form part of an overall strategy for dealing with hazards, including processes as simple as ensuring that all staff wash their hands regularly, as well as providing regular training and ongoing risk assessments.
Th usual way to monitor for lead is by blood tests, or less frequently, urine tests. Researchers who have investigated other alternatives such as salivary tests have concluded that while they are potentially easier and less intrusive for participants, they are not as effective.
Staff may need reassurance and will expect any tests to be carried out under the highest ethical guidelines. The good news is that for many, this is a well-established and reliable practice. Making it part of workplace routine is easily achieved.