The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published the results of a study on lead poisoning in children. Conducted in Ohio in 2012, the study investigated poisoning from parental take-home exposure, with the source being an electronic scrap recycling facility. The findings were outlined in the July 17, 2015 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The report summarizes the case investigation.
In June 2010, a male child aged 1 year and a female child aged 2 years were identified by routine screening to have elevated blood lead levels (BLLs) of 18 µg/dL and 14 µg/dL, respectively. The children’s primary care physician referred them to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU), and the Cincinnati Health Department’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program completed a lead risk assessment at the family’s home. The father worked at an e-scrap recycler company, crushing cathode ray tubes. He did not wear personal protective equipment at work, and he reported playing with his children when he came home. The family reported there was frequently visible dust in his hair, and the children often touched his hair, leading to direct contact with the father’s lead exposure. The father’s BLL was 25 µg/dL. The lead risk assessment revealed detectable lead dust on the floor of the home, but no lead-containing paint was detected in the home. The children attended daycare in a building that was built in 1992, and therefore it would not contain lead paint or lead building components. The father was advised to notify the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of his BLL, but it is not known if he did. However, the father did leave his job following the recognition of the elevated BLLs, and the children’s BLLs decreased to 8.7 µg/dL and 7.9 µg/dL, respectively, over the next three months.
In 2012, in an activity unrelated to the lead poisoning incident described in this report, NIOSH conducted a health hazard evaluation at the children’s father’s former employer, the electronic scrap recycling plant, as part of an initiative to learn more about exposures in e-scrap recycling. At this time, NIOSH was unaware of the childhood lead poisonings, as was the employer. The PEHSU investigator became aware of the NIOSH evaluation through a notification to a local affiliated occupational medicine training program and contacted the NIOSH investigators.
NIOSH investigators performed air and surface sampling for lead throughout the facility, which employed approximately 80 persons at the time. Three wipe samples taken from work surfaces in the cathode ray tubes area indicated high levels of lead. Cathode ray tubes are made from leaded glass, with lead concentrations in the funnel glass up to 25% and in the frit (where the panel glass joins the funnel glass) up to 85%. Lower surface lead concentrations were found outside the production area, including in the conference room supply air duct, multiple places in the break room (e.g., floor, tables, and refrigerator handle), and the water fountain near the restrooms. Additional wipe samples were taken from the hands of 12 employees from the cathode ray tubes processing area and other areas before they left work. The hands of eight of 12 employees tested positive for lead, even though they had washed their hands with soap and water before testing. NIOSH also took a wipe sample from uniforms of employees’ front shoulder area, finding positive lead testing results from twelve of thirteen uniforms.
NIOSH investigators noted that the local exhaust ventilation system at the cathode ray tubes crushing operation re-circulated potentially contaminated air back into the production area. There were no showers in the facility, and employees used brooms to sweep the work area, creating airborne dust, of which inhalation was almost unavoidable. In addition, because the changing area for employees who broke cathode ray tubes was not adjacent to the cathode ray tubes work area, employees could track lead-containing dust through the facility. Personal items, food, and work clothing and equipment were stored together in the changing area, leading to the potential for lead exposure and poisoning on multiple levels. All findings from the NIOSH health hazard evaluation were communicated to the employer and employees, along with recommendations to reduce exposure.
With the increasing use of electronic devices and subsequent disposal and recycling of those devices, exposure to substances such as lead contained within the devices is an emerging occupational health concern in the e-scrap industry. The patchwork of state regulations overseeing e-scrap recycling in the United States addresses possible damage to the environment, but health-based regulations are noticeably lacking. Approximately 130 million metric tons of e-scrap were recycled in the United States in 2010, with the scrap stream containing many types of toxicants (cadmium, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, polychlorinated biphenyls, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) that are not routinely screened for in adult workers or children. The cases described in this report were uncovered through routine lead screening, but other undetected chemicals might also be coming home from e-scrap worksites. Pediatric health care providers should query parents about their occupations to assess the risk for exposure to various substances found in occupational settings. The CDC also recommends pediatricians ask about parents’ occupations and hobbies that might involve lead when evaluating elevated blood lead levels in children, in routine lead screening questionnaires, and in evaluating children with signs or symptoms of lead exposure.
For more information on lead poisoning and its effects on adult workers and children,