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An upcoming military policy, expected to dictate safer lead exposure levels, will follow a new wave of contamination cleanup efforts being carried out by the National Guard.
OSHA and the Department of Defense are reviewing their current limits for occupational lead exposure in the face of years-old data that shows the current limits are dangerously lax when it comes to workers and soldiers exposed to the metal.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s current standards, if workers could be exposed to airborne concentrations of lead of at least 30 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an eight-hour workday, employers must monitor lead.
Employees whose blood lead level measures at or above 40 micrograms per deciliter must also be monitored as physicians have associated those levels with cognitive and behavioral impacts.
But a 2013 National Research Council report on Department of Defense personnel exposed to lead at firing ranges found that limit is unsafe.
“There is overwhelming evidence that the OSHA standard provides inadequate protection for DOD firing-range personnel and for any other worker populations covered by the general industry standard,” the report said.
Meanwhile, the National Guard has ordered the assessment and cleanup of lead dust in its indoor firing ranges. Until cleanup is complete, the National Guard has ordered the facilities remain vacant.
The Guard’s Dec. 6 order came on the heels of an 18-month investigation by The Oregonian newspaper, which found hundreds of armories across the country contaminated with dangerous levels of lead dust.
States are required to tell the National Guard by Jan. 31 what firing ranges they have, what condition they are in and whether cleanup has been completed.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends allowed blood lead levels for all adults be reduced to less than 10 micrograms per deciliter.
The 2013 National Research Council report that DOD funded found that lead exposure affects the birth weight and growth of fetuses in mothers with blood lead levels under 5 micrograms per deciliter, raising concerns as more women enter combat roles.
Lead exposure also can cause hypertension and cognitive dysfunction in adults.
“Because of the new information on health risks at these lower-range elevated (blood lead levels), the agency is exploring the possibility of modifying the lead standards in order to reduce the risk of significant health effects for the 1.5 million workers potentially exposed to lead,” said Mandy Kraft, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor.
A proposed OSHA rule ( RIN: 1218-AD10 ) is “exploring regulatory options to lower blood leads in affected workers,” but does not define a new safe range for lead exposure.
The Defense Department is working with OSHA and its research arm, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, to determine allowable levels of lead exposure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also is considering lowering its threshold for childhood blood lead levels, though the agency acknowledges no level of lead is safe for children.
The Defense Department expects to issue its new blood lead levels policy first, followed by the airborne lead concentration policy in late 2017. The department has yet to issue its new safe range for exposure to the metal, Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. James B. Brindle said.
According to Brindle, about 1,200 defense workers are annually monitored for blood-borne lead because of the potential of exposure in their workplaces.
About seven workers each year have blood lead levels that exceed OSHA’s allowances.
Historically, an average of 89 workers per year have had blood lead levels exceeding the standards under consideration for the department’s new policy.
“We expect the actual number of workers to be lower after the policy is fully implemented,” Brindle said.
For workplaces currently undergoing lead monitoring or cleanup, Brindle said it would be up to individual occupational health offices to determine whether cleanup needs to be re-done when the new OSHA and Department of Defense standards are released.
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