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Lead-Safe Wisconsin: Protecting Adults from Lead Exposure

What is lead and how does it poison?

Lead is a naturally occurring element found in small amounts in the earth’s crust. It was mined in Wisconsin and added as a stabilizing agent to products like:

  • Gasoline
  • Paint
  • Plastics
  • Varnish

While lead was banned from being added to paint and varnish for residential use in 1978 because researchers found it can be toxic to humans and animals, it’s still present in things like fishing sinkers and commercial paint.

Lead poisoning occurs by swallowing or breathing in lead dust and fumes, which can build up in the body over time. Exposure to a small amount of lead over the course of several years or exposure to a large amount of lead at once can both cause harm.

Because lead dust and fumes don’t have a smell, it’s important to know how to protect yourself from exposure dangers.

Learn about Wisconsin’s occupational health program

For adults, the workplace can be a primary site of exposure. They may work with products containing lead, or in areas where lead dust or fumes are produced.

For example, workers can be exposed to lead when:

  • Working with lead solder or melting lead in a furnace or pot.
  • Sanding or sandblasting areas coated with lead paint, causing lead dust.
  • Torching areas coated with lead paint, causing lead fumes.
  • Cutting or soldering metal may also create lead fumes.
  • Working with or around lead cables.

Workers can then bring that lead home with them—on their clothes, hair, or shoes.

Occupations and hobbies that may cause lead exposure include:

  • Auto body paint workers
  • Battery manufacturing workers
  • Bridge workers
  • Building renovators
  • Demolition workers
  • Drinking other liquids that contain lead
  • Drinking water with lead, caused by lead-coated pipes
  • Eating from leaded cookware
  • Fishing sinker and bullet makers
  • Lead smelters
  • Metal scrap cutting and recycling workers
  • Painters/paint removers
  • Plumbers
  • Radiator repair workers
  • Shooting range workers
  • Soldering workers
  • Stained glass or pottery artisans
  • Used electronics recycling (e-scrap) workers
  • Welders/torch cutters

Lead can harm your health before causing symptoms, which may occur slowly or be easily overlooked. Symptoms may include:

  • Constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Memory loss
  • Pain or tingling in hands or feet
  • Stomach pain

It can cause these health problems:

  • Decreased brain function
  • Decreased kidney function
  • Harmed physical and mental development of a fetus before birth
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased risk of miscarriage

In addition, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services have determined that lead likely causes cancer. (PDF)

Health problems can occur at very low levels of exposure but are more likely if you’ve been exposed to higher levels of lead or if you’ve been exposed over a long period of time. Lead accumulates in the bones and other parts of the body over time. This type of lead accumulation cannot be measured by blood lead level (BLL) tests, which only show current lead in the blood.

  • Ask your employer if you work with lead. They must tell you about anything at work that is dangerous, like lead, according to the law. Ask questions and ask for help if needed.
  • Follow the safety rules.
  • Report unsafe conditions to your shift/team leader or supervisor.
  • Use ventilation systems to remove lead dust.
  • Never use compressed air to clean up. Instead, damp mop or wet clean using a vacuum cleaner with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
  • Use cold, damp methods to remove paint.
  • Wearing the right personal protective equipment (PPE), such as protective clothing and respirators at work, will help to lower your exposure. Wear washable coveralls or disposable clothing when working in contaminated areas can minimize lead dust on your skin, hair, and clothes.
  • Wearing a respirator can reduce lead dust inhalation. Ask your supervisor or safety manager about the right respirators required to do your job.
  • Do not eat or drink near areas where lead is stored or a product containing lead is being used.

If you have questions, talk to your safety officer. You can also call CDC-INFO (800-232-4636) or contact Wisconsin’s Occupational Health and Safety Surveillance Program.

Can my family be poisoned if I work near lead?

Yes. Lead dust can settle on your hair, clothes, and shoes, and you can unknowingly bring it home.

What can I do to protect my family?

Shower before leaving work if possible. If you can’t shower, wash your hands before you leave, and change your clothes and shoes before leaving work.

Keep your dirty work clothes and shoes separate from your clean clothes. If you take work shoes or clothes home, store them in a heavy plastic bag away from children and wash them separately from your family’s laundry.

Also, don’t bring your lunch box, toolbox, or other personal items into the work area. If you bring something like a toolbox or lunch box home with you, store it in a heavy plastic bag away from children.

More information

Go for routine testing

A simple blood lead level test will tell you if you have lead poisoning. The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE) considers lead poisoning to occur when a blood lead level is 3.5 µg/dL or more.

Lower your blood lead levels

The most important way to lower the amount of lead in your blood is to remove yourself from the source. You can also talk with your doctor about other things you can do.

Do not try to donate blood to lower your blood lead levels. It is not a safe or reliable way to lower your blood lead levels, and could potentially pose a risk to some patients who receive donated blood, particularly infants and children.

Remember that blood lead levels only show how much lead is in your blood right now. Blood lead levels do not show how much lead has accumulated in your bones over time.

Young workers are at a high risk for getting hurt or sick on the job. Learn more on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) young workers’ page and in our Working Safe for Wisconsin Teens guidebook, P-00990 (PDF)

As an employee, you have the right to:

  • Ask questions if you don’t understand instructions or if something seems unsafe.
  • File a confidential complaint with OSHA about workplace hazards. Learn how to file a complaint.
  • Use and be trained on required safety gear, such as hard hats, goggles, and ear plugs.
  • Work in a safe place and receive safety training in a language you understand.

Your employer must:

  • Provide a workplace free from serious recognized hazards and follow all safety and health standards.
  • Provide training about workplace hazards and required safety gear.

Related pages
Last revised September 19, 2023