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Elevated Lead Levels Revealed In California Workers, Children

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- How much lead is your blood? And your children's blood? Depending on where you live and work in California, the answer may be: too much.

Elevated blood lead levels were detected in workers in a variety of California manufacturing and construction jobs, according to a recent report by the California Department of Public Health's Occupational Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.

National and state public health officials define an elevated blood lead level (BLL) as at or above 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (µg/dL).

Chronic exposure for both children and adults, at or above these levels, increases the risk of "hypertension, kidney disease, cognitive dysfunction, and adverse reproductive outcomes," according to California public health officials. Even a slight elevation in lead levels can lead to stunted development and a reduced IQ, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

California public health officials collected data on children with an elevated BLL of 4.5 µg/dL or greater and ranked their findings.

Oakland's Fruitvale District stands out as the California zip code with the largest percentage of children under six years old found to be over-exposed to lead when tested in 2012, according to preliminary data released by California public health officials.

In the Fruitvale District, 7.57 percent of children under six years old who were tested had elevated lead levels. Higher percentages of children with elevated lead levels were also found in other Bay Area cities, including Seaside in Monterey County at 7.44 percent and San Francisco's Mission District at 4.44 percent.

To put it into perspective, five percent of the children screened in Flint, Michigan had blood lead levels at or above BLL 5 µg/dL after they were exposed to lead in their drinking water, but before a water advisory was released in early 2015.

The CDC is now considering lowering the national blood lead level that constitutes a dangerous level for children, by 30 percent, to 3.5 µg/dL. The CDC previously lowered the threshold from 10 µg/dL to 5 µg/dL in 2012.

The CDC's Board of Scientific Counselors recommended last month that the agency lower the threshold at which a child is considered to have elevated lead levels.

A CDC spokesperson told CBS San Francisco that the CDC budget request for funds to assist U.S. states with lead safety programs in 2017 remains the same as in 2016: $17 million.

To put that budget into perspective, Congress directed $170 million to help Flint repair its water infrastructure during its lead crisis.

Beyond Flint, other communities across the country are also struggling with high percentages of children with elevated blood lead levels, yet receive little federal assistance.

Californians who work with gun or ammunition manufacturing, at shooting ranges, repairing guns, security training or shooting instruction may be among those adults with the highest levels of lead exposure, with some having 40 µg/dL or greater, according to the report, Blood Lead Levels in California Workers.

Other professions in which some workers tested at 40 µg/dL or greater were painting contractors, those working in wrecking and demolition, and those working in industrial building construction, among other professions.

The majority of workers with elevated lead levels, state health officials determined, were men with Hispanic surnames. While California's workforce is around 42 percent Hispanic, the proportion of Hispanic surnames among individuals with elevated BLLs reported was 63–64 percent.

California health officials say the reported data doesn't describe the "magnitude and distribution of elevated BLLs among California workers" explaining that "the most significant limitation is that many employers fail to provide BLL testing to their lead-exposed workers. The result of this large testing deficiency is that we do not know the true numbers of California workers with elevated BLLs."

Additionally, the report's authors maintain that the existing lead standards used by California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) are based on medical and scientific information that is over 35 years old. The authors recommend a major revision in an effort "to provide greater health protection to lead exposed workers."

The authors say they expect fewer workers would experience adverse health effects from lead exposure if revised standards were implemented.

By Hannah Albarazi - Follow her on Twitter: @hannahalbarazi.

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