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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Most adults' exposure to lead isn't enough to endanger their health. But, thousands of people work in close contact with dangerous lead fumes and dust; sometimes without even knowing it. State and federal rules require employers to protect their workers from toxic materials, still, some industries continue to operate with little or no safety precautions against lead poisoning. In part three of our series, Deirdre Kennedy has the story of one man who fell victim to the Silent Epidemic.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Even though lead is now illegal in house paint and gasoline, folks in the US still encounter the metal many places where they live, work, and play. Most adults don't get exposed to enough lead to have visible symptoms of lead poisoning, but even fairly small exposures can put their present and future children at risk. Thousands of people work in close contact with dangerous lead fumes and dust, sometimes without even knowing it. State and Federal rules are supposed to protect workers from toxic materials, but some employers continue to provide their workers little or no protections against lead poisoning. In Part 3 of our series, Deirdre Kennedy takes us where the silent epidemic of lead poisoning can be found in the workplace.

(Cooking utensils being brushed against each other)

KENNEDY: Luis Savalas spends his days cooking and doing chores at his home in San Jose, California. He quit his job as an automobile radiator repairman last year when he became too sick to work. Luis is a Nicaranguan immigrant who's lived in California for 11 years.

(Savalas converses with family)

KENNEDY: He now relies on his daughter Erica for everything, including driving him to the doctor's and translating.

L. ZAVALA: [Speaks in Spanish]
E. ZAVALA: He started feeling dizzy, and then his neck hurted, and now he forgets a lot of things. He has noticed, too, that you know, that he doesn't sleep. He only sleeps, like, 3 hours.

KENNEDY: At the age of 53, Luis may be permanently disabled from the effects of lead poisoning. Luis also has pains in his back and arms that make it hard for him to move. His symptoms are typical of long-term lead poisoning. At low levels, lead poisoning in adults can cause anemia, gastrointestinal problems, and loss of sexual function. At more advanced stages it can cause kidney failure, coma, and even death. But like many workers who suffer the gradual effects of lead poisoning, Luis didn't know it was lead until a Santa Clara County Health Worker came to his radiator shop and told him he should get a blood lead test. It turned out his blood lead levels were dangerously high, 58 micrograms per deciliter, just below the level of mandatory hospitalization. For 9 years Luis was the sole employee of a small auto shop. Every day he used a blowtorch to melt lead solder to patch holes in radiators. He says his workplace had no windows, no ventilation, and no protective equipment except for gloves.

L. ZAVALA: [Speaks in Spanish]
E. ZAVALA: He doesn't know, he was never told nothing before. He even told his employer, like a couple times, to buy a fan or something to suck up the air, because the air was so clogged up, like, you know, cloudy. But his employer, you know, ignored that.

KENNEDY: Under Federal law, workers who are diagnosed with lead poisoning must be moved to another job or receive full-paid leave until their lead levels go down. But Luis didn't know he was protected under the law, so he just quit. He's now living on disability, and even if his lead levels come down, he may never fully recover.

(Hissing sounds)

KENNEDY: At RadiatorLand in Santa Clara, workers flush out car radiators and vats of chemicals. This shop couldn't be more different than the one where Luis worked.

POSADA: And then over here is a carburetor ventilation system.

KENNEDY: The company's owner, Carlos Posada, says his shop meets all state and Federal standards and then some. He says he spent thousands of dollars making sure his employees have adequate ventilation, protective gear, and proper changing rooms. His workers get their blood lead levels tested regularly, and he monitors the air quality inside his shop. But, Posada says, many radiator shops don't bother coming up to code, betting that they'll never get caught.

POSADA: Most shops, if no one's knocking on their door bugging them, they'll play ignorant, and literally at the lives of their employees, so it's really sad.

KENNEDY: Posada says he has to charge his customers a few more dollars than other shops, but he says it's worth the extra cost.

POSADA: Economic times are really tight right now, and everybody wants to stretch that dollar. But you've got to ask yourself at what expense, and if your employees are in the community, it really doesn't make any sense. These people are in contact with you and also your children, so you want everybody to just live and work in a safe working environment.

(More hissing sounds)

KENNEDY: Adults who work around lead risk more than just their own health. Barbara Materna, an industrial hygienist with the State of California, says they can also take lead home to their children on their clothes, shoes, and hair. They even risk the health of their unborn children.

MATERNA: Lead has reproductive effects on both women and men, so it can affect sperm quality. If the mother is exposed, there are effects on the menstrual cycle and fertility and that sort of thing. Also, if the woman is exposed, her blood lead level is the same as any fetus that she's carrying.

KENNEDY: Federal health officials estimate that about 30% of lead-poisoned workers also have children who are lead poisoned. In 1996, 25 states reported nearly 27,000 adults with dangerous lead levels. Researchers believe most of them were exposed at work. Health experts say the real number of lead poisoned adults is probably much higher. As with Luis's case, the symptoms of lead poisoning can often look like other conditions, and doctors rarely think to ask if patients work around lead. Some other industries that involve lead exposure are battery manufacturing, gun firing ranges, and foundries.

(A paint brush sweeps)

KENNEDY: But the industry affecting the highest number of people by far is painting. Up until the 1950s, paint contained as much as 50% lead by weight. Painters used to actually grind the lead into the paint by hand, and that lead is still on millions of buildings across the United States. Frances Doherty owns a painting company in San Francisco.

DOHERTY: It gave good adherence, good color. It's great. Your paint jobs lasted a whole lot longer than they do now. I had a client tell me, "Oh gosh, I got my house painted 20 years ago and it lasted for, you know, 15, 20 years."

KENNEDY: Even once it's painted over, that lead hazard doesn't go away. Painters can disturb old lead paint when they sand, scrape, wash, or burn off layers of paint. Poor safety practices by painters can hurt not only the workers but also the building's occupants and even neighbors.

(Scraping sounds)

KENNEDY: On San Francisco's Nob Hill, Doherty's painters are prepping a Victorian building. They were called in after state inspectors pulled another team off the job and fined the homeowner thousands of dollars as part of a crackdown on illegal contractors. Frances Doherty says in a city like San Francisco, where 95% of the houses have lead paint, reputable contractors just can't afford to take chances.

DOHERTY: Any job we do, we presume it to be lead. Then, if it doesn't, then fine, you've just got a clean job.

KENNEDY: Frances Doherty switched to safe painting practices about 6 years ago, after her newborn son turned out to have elevated blood lead levels. She realized she was exposed to the lead paint while she was pregnant. Frances Doherty's painters no longer use high-power washers or torches to get old lead paint off buildings: two practices that can disperse lead paint into the air and soil. Now they use a special vacuum cleaner to suck up the lead dust.

(A vacuum cleaner sucks)

KENNEDY: Her workers wear respirators. She even makes them use hand wipes before they eat. Under a new Federal law, states must provide training and certification for such painting contractors. But there's still a big gap between the laws and the reality, since just about anyone with a paint brush can call herself a painter, even where state laws require a license.

L. ZAVALA: [Speaks in Spanish]
KENNEDY: Researchers at the Labor Department say there are fewer adults around like Luis Zavala. They'd like to think that's because more workers are being educated about lead poisoning. But they say it could just be that fewer people are being tested. Until more businesses comply with Federal laws and start to get their workers tested, unprotected workers like Luis will continue to suffer the debilitating effects of lead poisoning.

(Zavala and cooking implements)

KENNEDY: For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy in San Francisco.



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