Lead exposure beyond Flint—protecting our nation’s workers

This commentary was published in the September 12, 2016 edition of Environmental Health News‘ Above the Fold. To view the original version, click here: http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/2016/sept/commentary-lead-exposure-beyond-flint2014protecting-our-nation2019s-workers 

By Rachel Shaffer and Steven Gilbert
Environmental Health News

Lead poisoning returned to the national consciousness this year through the tragic events in Flint, Michigan, but drinking water is only one of many exposure routes. Because of outdated federal workplace safety standards, acute and chronic occupational lead exposure occurs all too often and can harm workers and their children, who may be exposed prenatally or through lead dust carried into the home. We need to protect workers and their families by updating federal workplace lead standards based on the latest scientific research.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates workplace lead exposure at the national level through two standards, the general industry standard and the construction industry standard. Both of these standards are severely outdated, based on information available in the 1970s instead of the latest scientific and medical evidence.

Image adapted from CDC/NIOSH

Thus, while OSHA’s mandate is to “assure so far as possible every working man and women in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions,” these goals have not been met for workplace lead exposure.

Under the existing regulations, workers can be exposed to levels of lead that result in 60 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood before medical removal is required, and they can return to work after their blood lead levels are as high as 40 micrograms per deciliter.

As comparison, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter as “elevated” and has set a “Healthy People 2020” national public health goal that aims to reduce the proportion of workers with blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter.

Exposure to levels of lead much lower than what is allowable under OSHA’s current standards have been linked to high blood pressure, decreased kidney function, reproductive effects and neurological impairments.

In industries with high potential for lead exposure, such as construction, gun ranges, and battery reclaiming/manufacturing, not only are workers at risk, but their families may also be exposed inadvertently through take-home lead dust.

Children’s developing nervous systems are particularly vulnerable, and lead exposure can result in intellectual impairment. Stricter standards that require lower workplace lead levels and better personal protection will substantially reduce the dangers associated with take-home lead exposures.

In addition, since lead released from bones during pregnancy easily crosses the placenta, children born to lead-exposed workers are at risk for neurodevelopmental and other adverse health effects. Better standards will reduce potential fetal lead exposure in female workers of childbearing age.

Both California and Washington State are in the process of updating their own occupational lead standards. But, why should workers in only two states be privileged to improved health protections? OSHA standards, which cover all workers across the country, should also be strengthened to adequately protect workers and their families.

In the interim, though, enforcement of company compliance with existing federal regulations is also critical. A recent blog post from the U.S. Department of Labor described a case in which OSHA officials responded to worker complaints and cited a Wisconsin shipyard operator with 19 willful violations of the lead standard after detecting elevated blood lead levels in 75 percent of employees tested.

OSHA regulates workplace lead exposure at the national level through two standards. Both of these standards are severely outdated.The incident illustrates the importance of maintaining a well-funded OSHA ensuring it has the resources to monitor adherence to the standards. However, a draft bill for fiscal year 2017 suggests that OSHA’s budget would be cut significantly, which may prevent these enforcement activities and thus put workers at further risk.

We have the scientific and medical evidence that documents the harms of elevated blood lead levels, and we have the technology to reduce occupational lead exposure.

Now it is time to take action to put elevated workplace lead exposure behind us by rapidly adopting a standard that is aligned with CDC’s existing public health guidance, which classifies blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter as elevated.

We must strengthen OSHA standards for lead and provide sufficient support for the agency’s enforcement actions. The health of our workers – and their children – depends on it.

Ancient philosophy, modern toxicology

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
– Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC)


Aristotle was talking about metaphysics and the emergent theory, but his insight corresponds to an important emerging theory in environmental health: combinations of different chemicals acting together in our bodies can produce larger (or different) effects than would be seen if each chemical were acting independently. In technical terms, this is called “synergism.”

Why does this matter? Through the course of our daily lives, we are all exposed to hundreds of different types of chemicals. Most laboratory toxicity studies, however, only assess the effects of a single compound in a carefully controlled environment. Consequently, the (very limited) data that we have on chemical hazard do not actually reflect real-world exposure situations (ie: co-exposures to mixtures of chemicals). Researchers are beginning to address this deficiency, though, and initial results suggest that Aristotle’s ancient wisdom is eerily relevant to modern-day toxicology.

A recent study published in the journal Toxicological Sciences examined the interaction between polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and arsenic. PAHs are organic pollutants that are produced during combustion processes (including from tobacco). Many PAHs, such as benzo[a]pyrene, can cause DNA damage and are known or suspected to cause cancer. Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that can exist in different chemical forms. The inorganic form As+3 can interfere with DNA repair and is linked to skin diseases and cancer. Human exposure to As+3 often occurs through ingestion of contaminated drinking water or rice-based products. Many people around the world are exposed to both PAHs and inorganic arsenic simultaneously, but little is known about how these two chemicals — one that causes DNA damage, and one that interferes with DNA repair – act together in the body.

For this work, researchers examined the effects of As+3 and three specific PAHs (benzo[a]pyrene and two metabolites, BP-Diol and BPDE) separately and together in mouse thymus cells (precursors to T-cells). Because T-cells serve a critical function in the immune system, chemical damage could lead to immune dysfunction.

After chemical treatment, the researchers measured the amount of DNA damage and DNA repair inhibition. At specific combinations of doses (one with As+3 and BP-Diol, and one with As+3 and BPDE), they saw a larger effect from treatment with two chemicals simultaneously than what would have been predicted from treatment with the same chemicals individually.

Next, they measured cell death (specifically, apoptosis) and found that while individual exposures to As+3 and BP-Diol did not increase death, exposure to the compounds together caused a synergistic increase in the percentage of dead cells. One possible explanation for this result is that at low levels of separate exposure, the body can adapt to prevent damage. But perhaps with the two chemicals together, the system is overwhelmed and cannot compensate.

Overall, based on these and other related results in this study, the researchers hypothesized that the As+3 increases the toxicity of certain PAHs through its ability to inhibit DNA repair pathways. As I noted above, PAHs alone can cause DNA damage. With the addition of As+3, which interferes with DNA repair during normal cell cycle replication, cell damage is even greater.

Previous work had documented the existence of similar interactions between PAHs and arsenic, but those studies had used high doses that were not representative of potential human exposures. This study, by contrast, investigated the effects of low-level exposures that are more similar to what we might encounter in the environment.

One important caveat of this work is that the researchers conducted the experiment in isolated mouse thymus cells. In vitro systems (or “test tube experiments”) are increasingly common in toxicology, as the field aims to find alternatives to whole animal testing. However, there are obvious limitations to these models. Not only are mouse cells different from human cells, but these mouse thymus cells are separated from the rest of their system and may not represent how a fully functional organism responds and/or adapts to a toxicant exposure. As follow-up, researchers should test this chemical combination in a relevant animal model to see whether similar results are obtained.

Nevertheless, this study provides important evidence of synergistic effects from low-level exposures to two common environmental contaminants. And these data may be just the tip of the iceberg. What other potential interactions exists between the thousands of other chemicals that we are exposed to over the course of our lives? The challenge with synergistic interactions is that they cannot always be predicted from testing individual chemicals. (I’ve written about this previously, specifically with regard to cancer processes.) It is daunting to think about testing all of the potential combinations that may exist, since our public health agencies are struggling to generate even basic toxicity data on all of these chemicals individually.

I wish we could consult Aristotle on this problem.

One strategy to start to address this challenge could be to prioritize testing combinations of chemicals that – like the pair chosen in the study described here – are most common across the population. Existing biomonitoring efforts, such as the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES), could guide the selection of appropriate mixtures. Testing these highly relevant chemical combinations could provide valuable information that could be immediately translated into risk calculations or regulatory standards.

As Plato, another great ancient thinker said, “the beginning is the most important part of the work.” So, while it is definitely overwhelming to think about tackling the question of chemical combinations, it is crucial that we take first steps to make a start.