Lead is a common element found throughout the environment in many different sources. It poses a significant health risk if too much enters the body. The risk is especially high for pregnant women and young children. In recent years, media attention has focused on the potential dangers to children from lead in and around the home. However, lead poisoning is the oldest recorded occupational disease; hazards of lead and its effects were known and documented in the fourth century.

Sources of lead include paint, which, prior to 1950, was used on the inside and outside of most buildings. In the 1960s, the use of lead in paint was reduced, and in 1977, federal regulations virtually eliminated lead from paint for general use. Lead was used in paint to make several colors and was known to dry to a hard durable surface. A second source of lead is soil. Lead is found in the soil around buildings with exterior lead paint and near heavily used streets where lead from leaded gasoline was used in the past. Both interior lead paint and contaminated soil contribute to a third source, which is building dust. People track soil in on their feet and interior painted structures peel, and that accumulates in the building dust. The fourth source of lead is in drinking water. Lead enters the drinking water through corrosion of materials that make-up the water supply and building plumbing systems. Other sources of lead include leaded crystal, old toys, lead-painted pottery, inks, hobbies and sports where molten lead is handled.

Workers have been poisoned by lead for thousands of years. Most lead overexposures in the construction industry are found in trades such as plumbing, welding and painting. In building construction, lead is frequently used for roofs, cornices, tank linings and electrical conduits. In plumbing, an alloy of lead/tin had been used extensively for soldering tin-plate and pipe joints. Law now prohibits use of lead solders in plumbing systems. Lead-based paint had also been used extensively for residential and commercial applications but has been banned for residential use by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Lead-based paint may still be used on metal structures (bridges, railways, beams, etc.) to prevent corrosion, although substitute coatings are now available.

Significant lead exposures can arise during stripping or demolition of structures containing lead-based paint. Due to increases in highway work, such as bridge repairs, residential remodeling and lead abatement, the potential for exposure to lead has become more common. The types of work with the greatest potential for lead exposure include ironwork, demolition, painting, plumbing, electrical, lead based paint abatement, and heating/air conditioning and carpentry/renovation activities.

The Environmental Health and Safety Office has conducted testing throughout campus to determine the extent of lead-based paint in university buildings. This testing will continue throughout campus as buildings are remodeled and work is conducted.

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