Symptoms of Workplace Lead Exposure Not to Miss
Lead exposure can be fatal if not treated early enough. Since there is no established “safe” blood lead level, any amount could be considered poisoning. This can happen acutely or chronically.
Lead poisoning is preventable by employers, but not every job takes it seriously.
Lead Poisoning and Its Symptoms
Lead poisoning happens on a spectrum. Symptoms may begin mild but progress with more exposure.
Below are the top 10 ways lead can affect different parts of the body:
Vision - Hallucinations and partial blindness may occur.
Mouth - There may be an unusual taste in the mouth, possible slurred speech, and something called “Burton’s line”--a bluish line that appears on the gums as a result of a chemical reaction with the circulating lead.
Skin - The skin may take on a more pallid or bluish appearance.
Reproductive System - Sperm dysfunction and pregnancy complications often result.
Neuromuscular System - There can be many neuromuscular system effects, including pain, delayed reaction times, convulsions, loss of coordination, weakness, seizures, or tremor.
Kidneys - The most significant effect lead can have on the kidneys is kidney disease. The first signs are often fatigue, insomnia, puffiness around eyes, and foamy urine, and they can progress to signs such as nausea and vomiting, chest pain, and shortness of breath.
Hearing - Hearing loss may occur.
Extremities - Pain, tingling, or “pins and needles” may be felt. Hands and feet may not be able to be held up, a condition called “wrist and foot drop”.
Blood - Anemia is common, as well as raised blood pressure.
Central Nervous System - Central nervous system changes can be significant and diverse. They can include everything from insomnia to coma. Other symptoms include loss of appetite, depression, irritability, decreased libido, cognitive deficits, memory loss, headache, delirium, and personality changes.
General health effects like malaise, fatigue, abdominal pain, and unintentional weight loss are also common.
Because of the range of symptoms involved with lead poisoning, a doctor may diagnose you with an entirely different illness.
That is why it’s important to get a blood test for lead if you think you have had significant exposure.
These are a few of the illnesses which lead poisoning can mimic the symptoms of:
- Guillain-Barré syndrome
- Acute appendicitis
- Sickle cell vasoocclusive crisis
Risk Factors For Exposure On the Job
OSHA has regulated occupational lead exposure since 1978, but that doesn’t mean companies always follow those guidelines.
The riskiest occupations and roles for lead exposure and poisoning include:
- Lead miners
- Lead smelters and refiners
- Gasoline additives producers
- Lead product solderers
There are also some unexpected occupations/roles which have high exposure to lead:
- Stained-glass makers
- Firing range instructors
- Pigment manufacturers
- Pipe fitters
Anyone can be exposed to lead that works with certain materials, such as lead-based paint (or works with any process which creates lead paint dust). There are also many hidden lead poisoning causes, so it isn’t always obvious where the exposure came from.
Is it Safe to Work Around Lead At All?
There is a risk you assume by working with materials containing lead, but there are many ways to reduce or eliminate your exposure:
- Remove contaminated clothing before leaving your workplace. Do not bring it home to wash.
- Use protective clothing and equipment.
- Wash your hands and shower immediately after you stop working.
- Work in environments which use HEPA filters and other means to control lead dust.
Regardless of these precautions, it’s a good idea to see your medical provider regularly to nip any issues in the bud. And again, always keep in mind that there are no safe levels of exposure. If you're experiencing symptoms, even if you think your workplace is safe, it's worth getting it checked out.
Pursuing Compensation For Your Lead-Related Illness
Your employer should be held accountable for dangerous lead exposure.