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Are You Bringing Toxic Chemicals Home from Work?

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By Diana Ceballos and Marcella Franck, reprinted from the Hoffman Program on Chemicals Health Blog.

As the mother of a 6-year old girl, I cannot imagine the devastation many parents endure when they learn that their child has contracted lead poisoning, which happens when the amount of lead in their blood has reached a level that can cause serious health problems. These issues can last a lifetime, leading to conditions such as hyperactivity, attention deficits, behavior misconduct, and cognitive impairment [Bellinger 2004; Lanphear et al. 2005].

Even though the dangers of lead poisoning are well known, in 2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 86,944 U.S. children (< 72 months of age) had confirmed cases of lead poisoning [CDC 2015c], with levels equal to or higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter—a value considered by the CDC to require public health intervention [CDC 2013].

Lead can come from environmental sources like water, soil, and chips from leaded house paint [Lanphear et al. 2005]. However, I have also witnessed many instances of children contracting lead poisoning because a member of their household has unknowingly brought lead dust home from work. Repeated exposures over months or years can build up in a child’s body—and even small amounts of lead can be harmful to children; especially those under the age of 6 [CDC 2012, CDPH 2008].

How do you bring lead home without knowing it?

This is a common question, and it is fairly easy to avoid. Some types of work create lead dust that is invisible to the naked eye, and has no smell. Even though you can’t see it, the dust attaches to your clothing, skin, hair, and personal belongings [CDC 2012, 2015a,b], and you take this dust home with you if you go home without washing, if you wear the same clothes and shoes home that you wore while working near lead dust, or if you bring home any contaminated items such as protective gloves or a travel coffee mug.

The dust transfers to your car, furniture, and floors and this transfer of chemicals—which is commonly known as “take home”—can result in the contamination of your car, home, and members of your household. Of most concern are children, as they are more likely to put their hands and contaminated objects into their mouths, and their health is very sensitive to chemicals in their environment [CDC 2014].

“Take home” can happen with many different chemicals, not only lead. While the most-studied chemicals include metals—especially lead and mercury—and pesticides, many other toxic chemicals, such as flame retardants, polychlorinated biphenyls, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, may also be taken home from work.

How do you know if you work with lead?

According to the California Department of Public Health, you may work with lead if you:

  • Make or fix batteries
  • Melt, cast, or grind lead, brass, or bronze
  • Make or fix radiators
  • Make or paint ceramics
  • Remove old paint
  • Tear down or remodel houses, buildings, tanks, or bridges
  • Solder
  • Work with scrap metal
  • Work at a shooting range

There are also many other jobs where lead can be present in work dust [CDPH 2008] including automotive lead-acid battery recycling [CDC 2012] and electronic scrap recycling [CDC 2015a,b]. Pesticides are often taken home by pesticide applicators and other agricultural workers [Thompson et al. 2003].

How do you protect your family from take home chemicals?

Even though workplaces are required to institutionalize policies that keep toxic chemicals confined within company walls, in practice even some of the most well-intended businesses do not prevent take-home contamination. Many outdated regulations are not sufficient in protecting workers’ health, especially when it comes to the migration of contaminants from work to home. I recommend that workers not rely exclusively on their employers’ policies to protect their health, and to incorporate safety practices into their daily routines.

If you think you are exposed to chemicals at work [CDPH 2008, NIOSH 2014a,b]: 

  • Ideally, you should change your clothes at work before you go home. Put your contaminated clothing in a plastic bag.
  • If changing your clothes is not possible, do your best to clean dust and other chemicals from clothing, shoes, and hair before getting into your car or going home.
  • Always wash your hands and face before going home.
  • Take a shower and wash your hair at work if possible, or as soon as you get home.
  • Avoid taking contaminated items from work to your home.
  • Wash your work clothes separately from all other clothes, then run the empty machine again to rinse out the machine (it’s better for your employer to wash your clothes).

REFERENCES

Bellinger DC. Lead. Pediatrics 2004;113(Suppl):1016–22.

CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) [2012]. Take-Home Lead Exposure Among Children with Relatives Employed at a Battery Recycling Facility — Puerto Rico, 2011. MMWR. 61(47); 967-970. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6147a4.htm.

CDC [2013]. Blood lead levels in children aged 1–5 years—United States, 1999–2010. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2013;62:245–8.

CDC [2014]. Low level lead exposure harms children: a renewed call for primary prevention. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/acclpp/final_document_030712.pdf.

CDC [2015a]. Investigation of Childhood Lead Poisoning from Parental Take-Home Exposure from an Electronic Scrap Recycling Facility — Ohio, 2012. MMWR. 64(27); 743-745. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6427a3.htm.

CDC [2015b]. What Happens at Work Doesn’t Always Stay at Work; Lead Exposure from an E-Scrap Recycling Facility Can Transfer to the Home. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/updates/upd-07-16-15.html.

CDC [2015c]. Number of Children Tested and Confirmed EBLLs by State, Year, and BLL Group, Children < 72 Months Old. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/data/Website_StateConfirmedByYear_1997_2013_11182015.htm.

CDPH (Califorinia Department of Public Health) [2008]. Don’t take lead home from your job! Available at: https://www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/CLPPB/Documents/CLPPB-TakeHome08(E).pdf

Lanphear BP, Hornung R, Khoury J, et al. Low-level environmental lead exposure and children’s intellectual function: an international pooled analysis. Environ Health Perspect 2005;113:894–9.

NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) [2014a]. Health hazard evaluation report: evaluation of occupational exposures at an electronic scrap recycling facility. By Ceballos D, Chen L, Page E, Echt A, Oza A, Ramsey J. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH HHE Report No. 2012-0100-3217. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/reports/pdfs/2012-0100-3217.pdf

NIOSH [2014b]. Health hazard evaluation report: evaluation of employees’ exposures to lead, noise, and heat at an automotive lead-acid battery recycling company. By King BS, Musolin K, Ceballos D, Brueck SE, Beaucham C. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH HHE Report No. 2012-0071-3224. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/reports/pdfs/2012-0071-3224.pdf

Thompson B, Coronado GD, Grossman JE, Puschel K, Solomon CC, Islas I, Curl CL, Shirai JH, Kissel JC, Fenske RA. Pesticide take-home pathway among children of agricultural workers: study design, methods, and baseline findings. J Occup Environ Med. 2003; 45(1):42-53.

Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH

Aaron Bernstein is the Interim Director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics.

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