Lead Facts: FAQs
How are adults exposed to lead?
Adult lead poisoning commonly occurs from exposure to lead used in the workplace. Workers may inhale lead dust and fumes directly, or swallow lead dust while eating, drinking, or smoking on-the-job. Adults can also be exposed during certain hobbies and activities where lead is used.
Adults can be exposed to lead if they work in:
- Painting, remodeling or renovation
- Radiator, battery or automotive repair
- Ceramics making and glaze mixing
- Soldering or cutting metal
- Bridge construction and repair
- Jewelry making
- Demolition of old buildings
- Foundries and scrap metal operations
- Indoor shooting ranges
Adults can be exposed to lead if they have the following hobbies:
- Using and making/melting fishing sinkers
- Making bullets or shooting in indoor firing ranges
- Welding, auto or boat repair
- Making of ceramics, stained glass, or jewelry
- Furniture refinishing, home remodeling or painting
People who work in lead related industries may bring lead dust into the home on their clothes and bodies exposing family members. Good hygiene needs to be observed to avoid bringing lead dust into the home from the work place. By following a few simple precautions listed below, hobbyists can also reduce the risk of exposure to lead and protect themselves and their families.
What are the symptoms of lead poisoning in adults?
People with high levels of lead in their bodies often do not seem sick. The symptoms that occur are very general and can happen for many reasons. Overexposure to lead can cause serious damage even if the person has no symptoms. A blood lead test is the only way to find out if an adult has lead poisoning. Lead is a powerful poison that stays in your body a long time. It can build up in your body to dangerous levels even if you are exposed only to small amounts of lead over a long period. An elevated blood lead level shows that lead is building up in your body faster than it can be eliminated.
Signs or symptoms that may be related to over-exposure to lead are:
- Tiredness or weakness
- Trouble sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
- Aches or pains in stomach
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
How does lead affect adults?
- Brain and nervous system damage
- High blood pressure
- Digestive problems
- Kidney problems
- Reproductive system problems
- Hearing, vision and muscle coordination problems
How can I protect my family and myself?
- Do not eat, smoke or drink when you are working. Before breaks or eating, wash your hands and face to avoid swallowing lead dust.
- Keep your work area clean using wet cleaning methods or a vacuum with a high efficiency (HEPA) filter. Do not dry sweep or use compressed air to remove lead dust.
- Store your street clothes in your locker. Change out of your work clothes and shoes before going home.
- Shower and change into clean clothes and shoes before you leave your workplace or hobby area.
- If you wash your own work clothes, wash them separately from those of other family members.
- Keep your car or vehicle free of lead dust and contamination.
- Keep children out of work and hobby areas.
- If you work with lead, follow the health and safety instructions given in your workplace.
- If you are provided with a respirator, use it and clean it after use. Make sure you understand how to check to see that it fits correctly and is working properly.
- If you work with lead in your job or hobby, get a blood lead test.
How can I learn more about lead in the workplace?
Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division (OR-OSHA) rules require that employers protect workers on the job from the hazards of lead. These requirements cover not only workers directly engaged in lead-related jobs, but also any workers allied with or supporting them (e.g., office staff) or who may be affected by the activities of the workers, such as employees working in a building being renovated.
For more information about lead in the workplace and OSHA's lead standards and regulations contact Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division toll-free at (800) 922-2689 or visit their website.
How can I receive more information on protecting my health while working with lead?
Download the brochure Working with Lead-Learn how to protect your health (pdf) or contact the Lead Poisoning Prevention program for a copy of this or other educational materials.
ABLES Program - Adult Blood Lead Epidemiology and Surveillance
Public health importance of elevated lead levels in adults
In the United States in 2007, over 9,800 adults were reported by 38 states to have elevated blood lead levels (BLLs) greater than or equal to 25 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL). 95% of these adults with an identified exposure source to lead were exposed at work (1). The average BLL for the general population in the U.S. is <2 µg/dL) (2,3).
Adults exposed to lead can experience anemia, nervous system damage, kidney problems, hypertension, decreased fertility, and increased level of miscarriages. Often, workers with elevated BLLs do not appear sick; however, recent evidence suggests that lead exposure at levels previously believed to be of little concern can result in adverse chronic health effects if the exposure is maintained for many years (3).
Workers can bring lead home from their workplace and expose their families. Children exposed to low levels of lead may exhibit symptoms of neurologic damage, including learning disabilities and short attention spans. In addition, lead can cross the placenta and interfere with normal development of the fetal brain.
Purpose of the Oregon Adult Blood Lead Epidemiology and Surveillance (ABLES) Program
Oregon ABLES has been part of the national ABLES program through the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) since 1991. At that time, Oregon Administrative Rules (OARs) 333-017 and 333-018 were revised to make lead levels a reportable condition to the Public Health Division. The objectives of our program are to:
- Identify adults with elevated blood lead levels (EBLLs) and determine the source of their exposure.
- Assure they receive appropriate medical management.
- Assist the individuals, their employers and their medical providers to reduce or eliminate the exposure.
- Identify other family members who may be affected.
- Develop intervention strategies and educational information to prevent future lead exposures.
A case of occupational lead poisoning is defined as an adult (16 years of age or older) with a BLL greater than or equal to 10 µg/dL. However, at this time we only provide case management for adults with a BLL greater than or equal to 25 µg/dL. All workers employed in Oregon that undergo blood lead testing are eligible for inclusion in our database, except self-employed individuals and those who fall under Federal OSHA's jurisdiction (for example, longshoremen, Federal workers, and contractors at Federal facilities). We report all cases above 10 µg/dL to NIOSH. We provide a list of employers who had one or more employees with a BLL greater than or equal to 25 µg/dL quarterly to Oregon OSHA.
Links to other Information
- For an extensive list of resources, visit our educational materials page
- Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division (OR-OSHA) subject page: Lead
- National ABLES program description
- State ABLES programs with extensive information:
- Adult Blood Lead Epidemiology and Surveillance - United States, 2005 - 2007. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: April 17, 2009 / 58(14);365-369.
- CDC. Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. NCEH Pub No. 05-05-7, Lead CAS No. 7439-92-1. Atlanta: CDC. Available at http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/center-for-excellence-in-environmental-health-tracking/Third_Report.pdf
- Association of Environmental and Occupational Clinics (AOEC). Medical Management Guidelines for Lead-exposed adults (pdf). Revised 4/24/2007.