By RAY WILBUR
Capital News Service
LANSING — While the Flint water crisis brought national attention to children exposed to lead, a larger group of adults and children with elevated lead levels is mostly ignored, officials say.
Young children whose parents have elevated blood lead levels are a high-risk group, health experts say. In Michigan, 34 percent of children under 6 with parents who have elevated lead levels also have elevated levels, according to a 2014 report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The lead comes home on the shoes and clothes of the parents who pick it up at work.
“The percentage of children in this group is much higher than in Flint,” said Ken Rosenman, chief of the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Michigan State University.
“What about these kids? Why aren’t they being mentioned?”
Roughly 4.9 percent of children under the age of 5 in Flint suffer from elevated blood lead levels, according to the American Journal of Public Health.
Rosenman said low federal regulations allow adults to have a blood lead level of up to 60 micrograms per deciliter of blood as a result of their work. For people working in construction, the standard is set at 50.
Lead symptoms become apparent when a person’s blood level reaches 25, but long-range exposure in the 5 to 10 range increases the risk for hypertension, high blood pressure, kidney problems and neurocognitive problems, Rosenman said.
“We want to see no one with lead levels above 25,” he said. “I’d like to see nobody with blood lead above 10.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not changed the standards since they went into effect in 1982. While states are allowed to set their own standards, Rosenman said Michigan is waiting for the federal government to act.
“Generally our lawmakers don’t want more stringent regulations than the federal government imposes,” he said. “The fed says it’s okay for someone to have blood levels as high as 60 so we won’t impose something more stringent than that.”
Gov. Rick Snyder’s Child Lead Poisoning Elimination Board has discussed the inadequacy of the Michigan Occupational Health and Safety Administration standard for protecting workers from lead exposure, Jennifer Eisner, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Human Health and Services, said in an email response.
Following the revelations that lead in Flint’s drinking water exposed children to unacceptable levels, Snyder created the board to recommend ways to help children at risk of lead poisoning throughout the state.
But that report, due out soon, won’t address the same issue in adults, said Paul Haan, executive director of the Healthy Homes Coalition and a member of the board. And that’s because it wasn’t mandated to look at adult exposure sources.
Haan did say there have been discussions about adult lead indirectly during the process of creating recommendations.
Last year, 435 adults who were tested because of their exposure to lead in their Michigan workplace tested in the 10 to 24 blood lead level range. The tests showed 78 had a level higher than 25, according to the federal Adult Blood Lead Epidemiology and Surveillance Program or ABLES.
The majority of exposure stems from manufacturing jobs, said Tina Reynolds, health policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. Adults in jobs such as copper making, bullet manufacturing, glass manufacturing and other manufacturing jobs that use lead made up 44 percent of all adults with elevated lead levels in 2014.
Manufacturing jobs often use lead in their work environment, Rosenman said. While employers are required to provide clean clothes for workers before they go home and adequate shower facilities, those regulations are not heavily enforced.
Wayne County reported 55 men and five women with elevated lead levels in 2014, the highest of any county. Rosenman said this is because of the county’s manufacturing industry.
The next-highest exposure rate is for people working construction. They made up 30 percent of Michigan adults with elevated levels in 2014, according to ABLES data.
Another aspect of the adult lead problem is the lack of resources and education to efficiently test and monitor adults who work in industries with high lead exposure, Reynolds said.
The state focuses on children, but neglects the high numbers of adults exposed to lead through their jobs, she said. That threatens their own health and the health of their children because of the ease in which lead can be transferred through clothes and other materials.
“If we’re looking at eliminating lead in this state, we have to look at everyone,” she said. “The tendency is to look at the smoking gun and be done, but there’s much more to this.”
Issues that need to be addressed, Reynolds said, include the testing of adults, regulations of workplace exposure and the effects lead exposure can have on the children of adults who experience elevated lead levels.
“If we don’t take a comprehensive approach and look at lead in adults, then we are ignoring them as well as their children,” she said.
By RAY WILBUR