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News from the National Academies

Date:  Dec. 3, 2012

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

Current OSHA Standards for Lead Exposure Inadequate

To Protect Military Firing-Range Personnel, Other Worker Populations

 

WASHINGTON -- There is overwhelming evidence that the general industry standards for lead exposure, set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) more than 30 years ago, are inadequate to protect employees at U.S. Department of Defense firing ranges and other worker populations, says a new report from the National Research Council. Blood lead levels below the level deemed safe by OSHA’s standards have been shown to cause nervous system, kidney, heart, reproductive, and other health problems, said the committee that wrote the report. 

 

OSHA established lead exposure standards in 1978 for most industrial workplaces, including  firing ranges. But a large body of research on the health effects of lead exposure has emerged since then. In light of these studies, DOD asked the National Research Council to evaluate whether the OSHA standards adequately protect the military’s firing range employees, who are exposed to lead recurrently when they handle ammunition, conduct maintenance on ranges, and inhale lead dust released into the air by gunfire.

 

According to the 1978 OSHA standards, which are still in effect, employees should not be exposed to lead concentrations in the air higher than 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air (µg/m3).  This limit was set so that workers’ blood lead levels would not exceed 40 micrograms per deciliter of blood (µg/dL), a level judged by OSHA at that time to adequately protect workers from adverse health effects.   

 

However, the report cites recent evaluations performed by the U.S. National Toxicology Program and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that offer compelling evidence that nervous system, kidney, heart, reproductive and other health problems can be caused by blood lead levels between 10 and 40 µg/dL or even lower levels.

 

These data led the committee to conclude that the currently allowable blood lead level of 40 µg/dL provides inadequate protection for DOD firing-range personnel and for any other worker populations covered by OSHA’s general industry standard.  Because of the association between air concentrations and blood levels, the committee also concluded that the 50 µg/m3 OSHA limit for lead in air is inadequate for protecting workers; a lower level is clearly warranted, the report says.

 

DOD firing ranges frequently fail to meet the current OSHA standard for lead concentrations in air; data collected for the last five years show that the limit of 50 µg/m3 in air was often exceeded on Army, Navy, and Air Force firing ranges, in some cases by ten times the level or more, the report says. 

 

Because few data are available on the blood lead levels of DOD firing-range workers, it is not possible to determine potential health risks to this specific population. Blood lead level data on firing-range personnel were not available from the Army and Navy. The Air Force reported that available data on blood lead levels of its firing range personnel were all under 40 µg/dL. Measures, such as the use of respirators, are taken to reduce exposure.

 

Given the committee’s findings, DOD should review its exposure guidelines and practices for protecting workers at firing ranges and consider lowering acceptable blood lead levels to more stringent levels, the report says. Some military firing ranges have already adopted more stringent guidelines, it notes.

 

Safeguarding workers involves a combination of protective guidelines for lead levels in air and blood, environmental and biologic monitoring to ensure that the guidelines are met, environmental controls to minimize exposure, and medical surveillance.

 

The report was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.  Panel members, who serve pro bono as volunteers, are chosen by the Academies for each study based on their expertise and experience and must satisfy the Academies' conflict-of-interest standards.  The resulting consensus reports undergo external peer review before completion.  For more information, visit http://national-academies.org/studycommitteprocess.pdf.  For more information, visit http://national-academies.org.  A committee roster follows.

 

Contacts: 

Molly Galvin, Senior Media Relations Officer

Shaquanna Shields, Media Relations Assistant

Office of News and Public Information

202-334-2138; e-mail news@nas.edu

 

Pre-publication copies of Potential Health Risks to DOD Firing-Range Personnel from Recurrent Lead Exposure are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu.  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

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NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL

Division on Earth and Life Studies

Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology

 

Committee on Potential Health Risks From Recurrent Lead Exposure of DOD Firing Range Personnel

 

David C. Dorman (chair)

Professor of Toxicology

College of Veterinary Medicine

North Carolina State University

Raleigh

 

Susan H. Benoff

Former Director

Fertility Research Laboratories

Feinstein Institute for Medical Research

Riverdale, N.Y.

 

Edward C. Bishop

Former Vice President

Parsons Government Services

Council Bluffs, Iowa

 

Margit L. Bleecker

Director

Center for Occupational and Environmental Neurology

Baltimore

 

Lisa M. Brosseau

Associate Professor

Division of Environmental Health Sciences

School of Public Health

University of Minnesota

Minneapolis

 

Rose H. Goldman

Associate Professor

Department of Environmental Health

Harvard School of Public Health

Cambridge, Mass.

 

Joseph H. Graziano

Professor

Department of Environmental Health Sciences

Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

New York City

 

Sheryl A. Milz

Chair and Associate Professor

Department of Public Health and

Preventive Medicine

University of Toledo

Toledo, Ohio

 

Sung Kyun Park

Assistant Professor

Departments of Epidemiology and Environmental Health Sciences

University of Michigan School of Public Health

Ann Arbor

 

Mark A. Roberts

Director

Center for Occupational and Environmental Health

Exponent Inc.

Chicago

 

Brisa N. Sanchez

Assistant Professor

Department of Biostatistics

University of Michigan

Ann Arbor

 

Brian S. Schwartz

Professor

Division of Occupational and Environmental Health

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Baltimore

 

Lauren Zeise

Deputy Director for Scientific Affairs

Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment

California Environmental Protection Agency

Oakland

 

Judith T. Zelikoff

Professor

Department of Environmental Medicine

New York University Medical Center

Tuxedo

 

STAFF

 

Susan Martel

Study Director