New Jersey Environmental Public Health Tracking Program

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Lead Exposure in Adults

What is Lead?

Lead is a poisonous metal that can damage nerve connections and cause blood, brain and kidney disorders.  Lead is found in all parts of our environment and has been used in a variety of ways including in paints, gasoline, and some vinyl products, such as mini-blinds.  It is used in the production of batteries, ammunition, metal products (solder and pipes), and devices to shield X-rays.  Most adult lead poisoning cases occur in the workplace, but may also occur in the home from hobbies or during renovations.  Lead exposure can occur when lead-containing products are disturbed, such as the sanding of lead-containing paints.  

How Does Lead Exposure Affect Human Health?

Long-term exposure to lead in adults can result in decreased performance in some tests that measure function of the nervous system.  It may also cause weakness in fingers, wrists, or ankles. Lead exposure also causes small increases in blood pressure, particularly in middle-aged and older people, and can cause anemia. Exposure to very high lead levels can severely damage the brain and kidneys in adults or children and ultimately can cause death.  In pregnant women, high levels of exposure to lead may cause miscarriage.  Chronic high-level exposure in men can damage the organs responsible for sperm production.  Lead exposure is measured by a blood test.  The amount of lead circulating in the blood is an indication of how much lead has been taken into the body in the previous few months. 

What is Being Done to Protect Employee Health in the Workplace?

Lead Exposure in AdultsSince lead overexposure is a leading cause of workplace illness, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established the reduction of lead exposure to be a high strategic priority.  OSHA's five year strategic plan sets a performance goal of a 15% reduction in the average severity of lead exposure or employee blood lead levels in selected industries and workplaces. 

The NJDOH Occupational Health Surveillance Program identifies high risk workplaces and provides free consultations to employees and employers on practical methods to reduce lead exposure.  The program provides many services, including: education and outreach to community groups, unions, trade organizations, and medical professionals; and individual referrals to Board Certified Occupational Medicine physicians for clinical follow-up and medical management.  In certain cases, the program may refer employers to federal OSHA for an enforcement inspection.

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