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Have California regulators learned the lessons of yesterday’s lead-poisoning tragedies?

Have California regulators learned the lessons of yesterday’s lead-poisoning tragedies?

Picture of Joe Rubin
(Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

I’ve spent much of the last year reporting on lead contamination at a former gun range a few miles from the state capital in Sacramento. In the course of my reporting I’ve been struck by a common question people often ask: “Do adults get lead poisoning, too?” 

There is no question that the tragedy of a lead-tainted water supply in Flint, Michigan has raised national consciousness about the perils of lead. But because the impact of lead poisoning on children is often irreversible, it’s the association between kids and lead that has stuck with the public.

But lead is an equal opportunity neurotoxin. Every year in California, according to California Department of Public Health (CDPH) statistics, around 3,000 workers are found to have elevated blood lead levels (BLL). Because most workers are never tested, the real number of workers with concerning levels of lead in their blood is thought to be much higher.

The majority of the most serious 200 or so cases of lead poisoning — those where BLL exceed 25 micrograms per deciliter — occur in high-risk workplaces like shooting ranges or battery recycling plants.  

UC Davis urban researcher Peter Green, an expert in urban lead contamination, says that these acutely poisoned workers should be viewed as the proverbial “canary in a coal mine.” Not only do these workers suffer adverse health effects like neurological problems and miscarriages in women, Green and other experts argue, they also can be a tip off that unsafe conditions are leading to additional workers being exposed. And, because airborne lead from unsafe workplaces can easily migrate to adjoining parks, homes and schools, the lead-poisoned workers could be a clue that nearby areas could be contaminated.

There is no more poignant example of the lessons workers can teach us than what became known as the “looney gas incident.”

Back in the 1920s, workers at a building which was part of the Standard Oil Refinery in Bayway, New Jersey started showing signs of mental deterioration and profound loss of coordination. Alarmed by the frightening symptoms they were witnessing, people at the refinery dubbed the worksite the “looney gas building.” The afflicted workers were responsible for handling a new gasoline additive called tetraethyl lead or TEL. TEL was developed by General Motors to keep cars running smoothly and cut out knocks and pings. Then in October, 1924, five of the workers died from acute lead poisoning.

Worry started to spread of what the lead, which escaped from tail pipes, might mean for the public. New Jersey and Philadelphia banned the sale of gasoline with TEL. But industry fought back, claiming the problems with lead could be controlled at the factory level. Small government advocate President Calvin Coolidge backed the companies’ position rather than impose a national ban. It took another 60 years for scientists to convince the EPA to ban leaded gasoline after it became clear that lead from those tailpipes had spread lead dust from sea to shining sea.

In Sacramento, the Mangan Rifle and Pistol Range was shut down in 2015 because of extremely unsafe levels of lead inside the range. The stories I reported on for Capital & Main helped expose the fact that a surrounding park and nearby homes were also seriously contaminated with lead from the gun range due to an unfiltered exhaust fan which spewed lead dust for decades into the working class environs near the gun range.

What led me to my current statewide project for the 2017 California Data Fellowship was learning about how state regulators responded to alarming information about lead-poisoned workers and lead contamination at the Sacramento range.

In 2003, officials from CDPH learned of a lead-poisoned worker at the range who had potentially life threatening levels of lead in his blood. Airborne lead inside the gun range, visited by thousands of people every year, was measured to be more than 80 times above levels considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Yet, rather than refer the case for an inspection that would have likely closed the dangerous facility, it was another 12 years before the gun range finally closed in 2015.

My experience investigating this one story got me to wondering, how are public health officials handling other cases of lead poisoning amongst workers in California? Are they ensuring that unsafe conditions are getting fixed? Are they on the lookout for ways airborne lead could easily escape a factory and rain lead dust down on a nearby schoolyard?  

In many states a severe case of lead poisoning would trigger what is called a “compliance inspection” by the U.S. Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA). A 2001 OSHA directive says that any workplace where blood levels exceed 25 micrograms “shall be considered high-gravity, serious and must be handled by inspection.” These inspections often result in fines and sometimes the closure of hazardous work sites.

But California does not follow this protocol. Cal/OSHA and state officials say they are not bound by the federal directive because the state has a state-run OSHA program. It’s not that California health officials don’t care about the dangers of lead. But they rely heavily on an education program rather than inspections with teeth.

How big a problem could this trusting rather than tough approach be statewide? At the former Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon, California, there is evidence from law suits that plant workers contracted lead poisoning for decades before the plant closed. Today we know that thousands of homes near Exide have unsafe levels of lead in soil, and children near the plant have higher levels of lead in their blood than they would have otherwise been exposed to.

As part of my data reporting project I will be requesting public records to learn more about the most serious lead poisoning cases amongst workers in California. Did the same workplaces have repeated incidents of lead poisoning, or did voluntary improvements encouraged by CDPH yield big improvements?

Put another way, I’ll be looking to see if California regulators have learned the lessons of the Looney Gas incident of 1924? Or, are they still acting more like Calvin Coolidge, in denial about the dangers of lead?

(Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

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