Is Lead The New Asbestos?
Asbestos was once hailed as a marvellous material, with its impressive insulation and fire-resistant properties. However, as time passed the health issues caused by asbestos became apparent. It is now acknowledged as a major health and safety risk, so much so that, where found, it has to be professionally removed to safeguard the health of that building’s occupants.
However, it may well be that lead is filling the void left by asbestos in terms of being a material that are injurious to health. Increasingly, employers are taking steps to ensure safety signs signalling the presence of such hazardous materials are in place.
Read on to find out why lead is present in some workplaces and institutions, how to find out if its present in your premises and, if so, what precautions to take and how to safely remove it, thus protecting the health of all site users.
History of lead
Lead is far from a recent discovery – ancient records show white lead was being manufactured as long ago as the 4th century BC. The primitive methods of preparation in those days were dangerous to workers, but artists loved white lead paint. It remained in use up until the 19th century, when it was replaced by white zinc and white titanium.
By the 20th century, it was apparent that white lead was dangerously toxic. In 1866, it was banned in German factories employing women and children. These factories used white lead and another compound, known as lead sugar or lead acetate, to manufacture products as diverse as the following:
- Hair dye
- Textile treatments
- Textile dyeing and other dyeing
In the past, red lead paint was commonly used on external pipes and metalwork as a primer to prevent corrosion. Although not banned by legislation, by 1992 it had mostly been replaced by alternatives such as red oxide.
Coloured lead paints – yellow, red, orange, green – were added to wall paints and gloss for external use and used for road markings.
Toxic effects of lead
Lead is poisonous, and lead paint is known to cause several conditions and illnesses. Children are particularly vulnerable to it – lead has a sweetish taste, so lead paint used in toys, for example, can easily find its way into children’s mouths. Adults are also adversely affected if exposed.
Lead paint is now thought to be a carcinogen. Exposure to high levels can cause death. Besides cancer, other conditions and illnesses it can cause include:
- Abdominal pains
- Behavioural disorders in children
- Brain damage
- Damage to reproductive systems in men and women
- Delayed development in children
- Kidney damage
- Memory problems
- Nervous system impairment
- Stunted growth
Lead in use today
Lead paint is still manufactured, but generally, in developed countries, lead-content levels are tightly regulated. Many countries have now banned the use of lead-based paint in toys and furniture, and there are also strict regulations about the removal of lead paint, particularly from the interiors of buildings such as nurseries and schools.
Lead is still found in some decorative and architectural paints for external use, and coloured lead paint is used in road markings, despite substitutes being readily available. Lead paint is also used for industrial coatings and on cars, and concerns have been raised about the effect this may be having on several things, including the environment.
Worryingly, people involved in manufacturing lead paint, applying it or removing it may bring home contaminated particles on their clothing or bodies, subsequently exposing their families to them. As such, public health experts worldwide continue to call for a total ban on lead in paint.
Experts say that lead may be present in some tinned foods, spices and toys imported from other countries, so it makes sense to be careful about what you buy and check its origins.
Older homes may contain lead in paintwork, pipes and plumbing systems, and lead may have been used to glaze ceramic tiles. If you are redecorating and spot old, flaky paint that you’re not sure about, you should proceed with caution. Collect a small sample for analysis or call in an expert who can remove suspected lead paint safely. Laboratories that specialise in identifying toxic substances can offer guidance on how to safely collect and store a sample.
You can get practical advice from the government regarding safety measures to take when dealing with hazardous materials, such as lead paint. These include:
- Choosing a vacuum cleaner with high-efficiency filters that meet British Standard 5415
- Using a face mask with built-in respiratory protective device
- Wearing protective clothing and gloves
Current UK legislation
The Control of Lead at Work (CLAW) Regulations 2002 are designed to ensure employers prevent employees being exposed to lead, or adequately control exposure where prevention is not possible.
The government website contains valuable information about how lead can produce dust particles, vapour or fumes, and how these should be handled. There are important pointers about undertaking regular risk assessments and keeping controls in good working order. You must ensure employees have adequate training and supervision, as well as access to practical advice about contamination and the importance of appropriate skincare.
It’s worth taking time to consider how your workplace complies with the current rules about working with or near lead. You should have welfare facilities located in isolated areas where potentially-contaminated clothing can be processed, and employees should be able to shower to remove stray particles before moving to a clean area where their own clothes and other possessions are stored.
If these provisions are not met, there is a very real risk that you will be putting the health of your employees and their families at risk, as well as falling short of government requirements, the consequences of which could be legal action.