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Lead poisoning

What is it?

The name "plumber" originates from the Latin plumberium "worker of lead". Lead has been used throughout the ages due to its resistance to corrosion. The metal is poisonous when ingested or inhaled through dust, fume or vapour. Lead is present in many products including leaded petrol, solder, pipes, lead paints, scrap metal, pottery glazes, antique toys and antique paintwork. It is illegal in the UK to use lead solder or pipes in systems used for drinking water. However, there are some older systems that do contain lead. The water flowing through these systems pick up lead particles which are then ingested. Lead dust when inhaled has the same effect, both can cause serious poisoning.

How are people poisoned and what happens?

Lead enters the bloodstream and accumulates in organs (especially the liver, kidneys and brain), tissues, bones and teeth. Prolonged and repeated exposure increases the levels of lead in the body. The human body absorbs and expels lead very slowly, it is a cumulative poisoning as it can take from weeks to years for the body to expel lead after exposure.

Symptoms and the damage done by lead poisoning differ from adults and children. Children absorb lead more easily than adults so are at a greater risk. People who work with lead should be aware that they can bring lead dust into their homes on their clothes.

Children

Low level lead poisoning can be hard to spot as the symptoms don't always make themselves obvious till a later age. Symptoms of those exposed to higher levels of lead can include headaches, a blue line around the gums, tiredness, anaemia, abdominal pain and cramps, vomiting, diarrhoea, hearing problems, slow growth, foot drop, wrist drop, lack of physical co-ordination, convulsions, coma and death. Lead poisoning causes permanent brain damage, damage to the central nervous system, a drop in IQ, learning disabilities and behavioural problems.

Adults

In adults the symptoms can include headaches, tiredness, a blue line around the gums, anaemia, abdominal pain and cramps, vomiting, diarrhoea, hearing problems, insomnia, lack of concentration, memory loss, problems with the kidneys, lack of physical co-ordination, high blood pressure, foot drop, wrist drop, abnormal behaviour, convulsions, coma and death. Lead poisoning can cause infertility, hearing difficulties, kidney disease, kidney failure, permanent brain damage and damage to the central nervous system. In women lead poisoning can cause stillbirth, miscarriage, premature birth and foetal development problems.

Treatment of both adults and children involves removing the source of the lead. In low level lead poisoning this can be all that is needed for the patient to start to recover. In cases with a higher exposure to lead, chelation drugs are used to help the body remove it. Lead poisoning can cause permanent damage to the brain, vital organs, central nervous systems and can be fatal.

It you suspect lead poisoning, you must contact your doctor immediately and tell him/her your suspicions.

Who is at risk?

People who work with lead are at a higher risk of poisoning as are children and pregnant women. Plumbers and those in the construction industry should take care not to ingest or inhale lead particles. People with old plumbing systems should ensure that lead has not been used in any part which comes into contact with drinking water. Water can be easily tested for traces of lead. Always wash clothes covered in lead dust separately. Be aware that lead based paints in older properties are a source of lead poisoning – especially in children - always take great care and get expert advice when dealing with lead based paints.

Lead Pipes

If you live in a house built pre 1970 and have never had your pipework replaced, you may have lead pipes in your home. Look in or behind kitchen cupboards or even in other places such as the cupboard under the stairs, to find any pipes that lead to the kitchen taps. Lead is dull grey in colour. If you find any pipes you suspect are lead, you can test them by scraping the surface gently with a knife, lead is a soft metal and a shiny, sliver coloured surface should be exposed.

If you live in an upland area with soft water and you have lead pipes, you can be at a higher risk of poisoning. In hard water areas limescale builds up inside the pipes and lines them to form a barrier between the pipe and the water. Your water company regularly takes samples of water supplied to properties, you can find out if the water supplied to your house contains high levels of lead. The water company can replace lead pipes at your request that lie under its responsibility. However you are responsible for all pipes on your land - if the lead pipes are on your property it is up to you to replace them.
If you have a high lead content in your water it is recommended by the Drinking Water Inspectorate that you should:

  • refrain from drinking water that has been left standing in the pipes for more than a few hours. Draw off a washing-up bowl full of water to clear out the water (if your lead pipework is longer than 40 metres you will have to draw off more water);
  • replace any lead pipework between the stop valve between the outside of your home to your kitchen tap;
  • ask your water company to replace its service pipe (if made of lead) between the water main in the street and the stop valve;
  • always drink from taps in the kitchen - don't drink from bathroom taps. 
  • If you do remove lead pipe make sure it was not used as an earth for electricity in your home.


Lead in the workplace

If you are self-employed you need to take the same precautions against lead poisoning yourself, that an employer has to by law take to prevent lead poisoning amongst his/her employees.

Employers have a duty by law to protect employees from the dangers of lead poisoning. Employers have to make a risk assessment of their employee's exposure to lead and implement precautions to protect their workers health if there is a "significant" risk present. These precautions and preventative measures include:

  • putting in place systems of work and controls e.g. extraction ventilation equipment which must be kept in good working order;
  • information on the health risks associated with lead;
  • up-to-date information on precautions to take;
  • training on control methods and protective equipment;
  • washing and changing facilities;
  • lead free areas for eating, drinking and smoking. 

Your employer should tell you if your risk is "significant". If it is your employer must:
provide you with protective clothing;

  • measure the amount of lead in the air you are exposed to AND tell you the results;
  • if the amount of lead in the air is above the occupational exposure limit, your employer must issue you with respiratory protective equipment;
  • measure the level of lead in your body through a blood test taken by a doctor/nurse at your place of work. You MUST be told your test results.


How is lead checked for in the body and how do I know what is too much?

Lead is measured in the number of micrograms of lead per decilitre (100 millilitres) of blood. A doctor or nurse therefore has to take a blood sample to test for lead and may even ask for a urine sample to test for the effects of lead poisoning.

If you are working with lead your blood-lead level should be checked every three months, especially if you are under 18 years old or a woman of childbearing age. If you are exposed to work where the level of exposure is extremely high, you may be tested more regularly. If your blood-lead level and exposure level are relatively constant, your doctor may test for lead less often.

If you are a male over 18 years old, or a female above child bearing age and your blood-lead level reaches 50 micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood (the action level), your employer (or yourself if self-employed) has to take steps to reduce that level. Your employer has to:

  • review lead control measures in place and check that they are working effectively;
  • ensure you are following proper hygiene procedures;
  • consult a doctor about any additional protective measures. 

If your blood-lead level reaches 60 micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood (the suspension level) the doctor will repeat the test to confirm the result of the first test. Normally if your blood-lead level reaches this high, your doctor will tell you to stop working with lead, although there are some exceptions to the rule. Your employer must act on your doctor's decision. You will not be able to work with lead or be exposed to it until your doctor considers it safe enough to do so.

If you are a woman of child bearing age, your action and suspension blood-lead levels are considerably lower. Your action level will be 25 micrograms per decilitre of blood and your suspension level will be 30 micrograms per decilitre of blood. For young people under 18 (except those of childbearing age) the action level is 40 micrograms per decilitre of blood and the suspension level is 50 micrograms per decilitre of blood.

If your employer has to suspend you from work as there is no suitable work for you to do away from lead, you have the right to be paid by your employer for up to 26 weeks.

If you become pregnant you should not work anywhere where there is a significant risk of exposure to lead.

Respiratory Protective Equipment

If you are working in a situation where lead is present and you are at a significant risk, you should be issued with respiratory protective equipment. Respiratory protective equipment includes face masks, hoods and helmets. The type of respirator used will depend on the amount of lead present and the type of job. Make sure you use the right equipment for that particular work.

MAKE SURE YOUR RESPIRATORY PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT FITS AND WORKS CORRECTLY. Your employer (or yourself if self-employed) has to train you how to fit, clean, look after and use respiratory protective equipment properly, and keep this training up-to-date with refresher courses. Tests need to be carried out to make sure that your face mask fits properly (it is an employers duty to make sure you have a face fit test before using any kind of respirator) as if you have a beard (even stubble), wear glasses or have sideburns, certain types of respirators may not fit adequately. NEVER TAKE OFF YOUR RESPIRATOR IN A CONTAMINATED AREA.

How can I protect myself?

To protect yourself from lead poisoning you should:

  • have information and training on working safely with lead;
  • know what to do in an emergency;
  • know how to make full use of all control measures, systems of work and equipment provided by your employer;
  • keep your immediate work area as clean and tidy as possible;
  • clear up and dispose of any lead waste at the end of each day or shift;
  • don't take home any protective clothing or protective footwear for washing or cleaning;
  • wear protective clothing and respiratory equipment when you need it and return it to the proper place when your work has ended;
  • report any damaged or defective ventilation plant or protective equipment;
  • only eat, drink and smoke in places free from lead contamination; 
  • wash your hands and face and scrub your nails before eating/drinking/smoking;
  • wash and/or shower and change your clothes before you go home;
  • keep your medical appointments with the doctor where you work. 

If you suffer from lead poisoning you should:

  • remove yourself from all sources of lead; 
  • never go on fairground rides with centre fugal forces (lead stored in the bones can be released in high quantities to the blood and organs when the body is under pressure from centre fugal forces). 

Want to know more?

The information this section "Lead in the workplace" is based on information published by the Health and Safety Executive. For more information on lead poisoning please go to www.hse.gov.uk 

For consumer information on lead, please log onto the Drinking Water Inspectorate's site at www.dwi.gov.uk