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Why should we care about lead exposure?

In partnership with The European Commission
Why should we care about lead exposure?
Copyright euronews
Copyright euronews
By Paul Hackett
Published on Updated
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The European Union wants to reduce human exposure to harmful substances like lead. While there are already occupational limits in place for lead, the latest science considers these rules to be outdated, here's why.

Approximately 100,000 people are subject to lead exposure in the workplace across Europe. 

Lead is a key occupational reprotoxicant, meaning it can affect sexual function, fertility and developmental neurotoxicity. According to the European Environment Agency, lead exposure also heightens the risks of developing neurodegenerative, cardiovascular or renal diseases.

Some 300 complaints of ill-health are linked to lead exposure every year in Europe. A European Commission study on reprotoxic chemicals in 2019 found lead accounts for around half of all occupational exposures to reprotoxic substances and associated cases of reproductive ill-health.

While the EU has limits in place for occupational lead exposure, these figures are out of date and pose a significant risk to workers' health, according to the World Health Organization. The current EU binding occupational exposure limit (OEL) is 0.15 mg/m³ and the biological limit value (BLV10) is 70 µg per 100 ml blood. 

These limits were first introduced in 1982. The Commission has now revised the current levels and wants to further reduce the limit to 0.03 mg/m3 by Spring 2026.

What is lead used for?

Humans have mined lead for millennia; this corrosion-resistant metal has historically been used to make pipes, paints, insecticides, ceramics, stain-glass windows and blended to form alloys or other metals.

Today, it is an essential component in car battery production, weapons manufacturing, waste management and the demolition industry. 

However, the WHO has listed lead as one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern.

The effects of lead exposure have only been fully understood in recent decades including the detrimental effects it has on children. To address these issues, efforts have been made to reduce lead exposure in certain industries or ban it altogether.

The reduction or banning of lead in some production chains has already proved effective, for example, leaded fuels are no longer sold on the commercial market.

In the 1970s, the gradual elimination of lead from petrol resulted in lower blood lead concentrations across Europe. More specifically, a Swedish study observed a 60 per cent drop in blood lead concentrations in children between 1978 and 2007.

However, the increasing demand for lead-acid rechargeable batteries as part of the clean energy transition and industrial lead paints means that lead exposure will continue to be a health concern in Europe.

What does lead exposure do to the human body?

Inhaling or ingesting lead particles or lead-contaminated dust can lead to lead poisoning which inhibits DNA repair.

Children in particular can absorb four to five times more lead than adults on account of hand-to-mouth behaviour. Once absorbed it is distributed to the organs such as the kidneys and liver and in time is stored in the bones. 

High levels of lead poisoning in children can lead to brain damage, shortened attention spans, behavioural changes and learning problems. In addition, malnourished children are at greater risk of lead poisoning because the body will absorb more lead if other nutrients and minerals are lacking. 

When it comes to occupational risk in Europe, men are more likely to develop lead poisoning due to their dominance in heavy industries, however, lead exposure poses additional risks to pregnant women and those of childbearing age.

Despite the EU's plans to better protect workers by reducing the limit to less than one-fifth of the current level, there is no known safe blood lead concentration. 

The WHO estimates that approximately one million lives are lost from lead exposure every year around the world.

What about diisocyanates?

Diisocyanates are chemical compounds used to make bedding, flexible foams, furniture, adhesives and weather-resistant materials. They are also used to make insulating materials for more energy-efficient buildings and wind turbines.

However, diisocyanates are one of the most common causes of occupational asthma. Between 2,350-7,270 cases are reported in the EU annually out of some 4.2 million people across the continent who are exposed to diisocyanates while at work.

To reduce occupational exposure to diisocyanates and consequently the cases of diisocyanate-induced asthma, a restriction on diisocyanates was recently adopted under the REACH Regulation in the European Union.

This will set limits on nitrogen, carbon and oxygen diisocyanates for the very first time. Employers will be required to ensure that workers who are at risk of inhaling these harmful substances are exposed to a maximum of 6µg NCO/m3 over an 8-hour work day or 12µg NCO/m3 if it is a shorter period of 15 minutes.

To find out more about what the EU is doing to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals in the workplace, check out the latest episode of Real Economyhere.

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