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Children of Construction Workers at Increased Risk for Lead Poisoning

NIOSH Update:

Contact: Fred Blosser (202) 260-8519
August 28, 1997

In the first comprehensive study of home lead contamination among construction workers, researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that children of lead-exposed construction workers were six times more likely to have blood lead levels over the recommended limit than children whose parents did not work in lead-related industries.

Exposure to toxic materials in the workplace is a concern for families of workers in several industries. Lead is of particular concern for workers with young children since it has been shown to cause a variety of health problems in children, ranging from behavioral disorders to brain damage. The risk to children is particularly high because they frequently put their hands in their mouth thereby increasing their exposure and because their bodies quickly absorb lead into their systems.

AParents wouldn’t take their children to a dangerous workplace. It’s equally important that they do not bring the hazards of the workplace home to their families,@ said NIOSH Director, Dr. Linda Rosenstock.

The study, published today in the American Journal of Public Health, examined 31 children of lead-exposed workers and a control group of 19 children of unexposed workers from New Jersey, metro Philadelphia, and southeastern New York. The study is limited in size and representativeness. The small number of subjects and the researchers’ difficulty in contacting workers during recruitment for the study is representative of the difficulty in studying this highly mobile worker population.

To prevent contaminating the home with lead from the workplace, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires for all workers exposed to lead above the permissible exposure limit (PEL) that employers: 1) provide clean protective work clothing; 2) ensure that workers change out of work clothing before leaving the work site; and 3) ensure that workers shower before leaving work. When an employer does not provide clean work clothing (for example, at a work site with exposures below the PEL), NIOSH recommends that contaminated work clothing be handled, stored, and washed separately from all other clothing.

The OSHA lead standard for construction was implemented one year before the data collection phase of this study. It is difficult to use this study to evaluate the effect of the new standard since lead contamination in workers’ homes and automobiles may reflect accumulation over many months or years. However, this study found that 50% of the workers reported changing out of work clothes prior to leaving work. In addition, most workers (79%) wore at least some street clothes at work and almost all (91%) washed these clothes at home. Finally, only 18% reported always showering before leaving work.

Nearly 8 million people are employed in the construction industry. Parents, physicians, employers, and public health organizations have an important role to play in protecting the children of these workers. Regular screening of the children of lead-exposed workers should be conducted in order to ensure their safety and their future.

For more information on lead or other hazardous “take home” substances call NIOSH at 1-800-35-NIOSH or visit the NIOSH homepage at