Lead poisoning is most often discussed as a hazard to children. But adults exposed to the neurotoxin suffer serious and humiliating consequences. As one man who’d worked at a battery recycling plant in Los Angeles told me, “Lead acts like a wrecking ball on the body.” He recounted chronic tremors, mood swings, weakness and sexual dysfunction. The dangers spread beyond the factory gates, too. Workers track lead dust home where it can wreak further havoc on their families.
Last month Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed Assembly Bill 2963, which would have forced two California agencies to get their act together to reduce worker lead poisoning. The bill would have required the Department of Public Health to alert the Division of Occupational Safety and Health — better known as Cal/OSHA — when test results showed any worker has too much lead in their blood. Cal/OSHA’s attention comes with some bite: the power to levy fines and to require remedies to unsafe conditions.
Brown, however, rejected the idea that any fix was needed. In his veto statement, the governor said the Department of Health already already sends workplace lead cases to Cal/OSHA “for enforcement, if needed, on a case-by-case basis.
That lawyerly and qualified statement may be technically true, but what I discovered after crunching data and examining thousands of public records is that California’s workplace lead rules are unlike any in the nation. The biggest problem: There is no “red line” for worker lead poisoning at which point public health officials must refer the employer to Cal/OSHA.
According to safety experts in other states, setting a clear benchmark for lead levels is crucial.
The situation is different in 37 other states which use a federal OSHA standard called the National Emphasis Program on Lead. Under that standard, whenever a single worker has a blood lead level at or above 25 micrograms per deciliter, the case is “considered, high-gravity, serious and must be handled by inspection.”
According to safety experts in other states, setting a clear benchmark for lead levels is crucial. Michael Wood, administrator for Oregon OSHA, which adopted the federal standard in 2009, said that having mandatory inspections automatically triggered has allowed his agency to identify dangerous situations before they got worse. “The use of a relatively accurate mile marker enables us to identify overexposures when they occur, so that we can take appropriate action on behalf of workers,” Wood said.
Brown had more than 1,200 bills to consider at the close of the last legislative session. That volume means the governor has to rely on agencies and advisors to help him decide what to sign and what to veto. In the case of AB 2963, the California Department of Public Health appears to have nudged him toward sticking with the status quo.
Last week I reviewed the pre-veto notes of an analyst from the state Senate Health Committee; a public health official told her that the department doesn’t view workers with elevated blood lead levels as a situation where it’s “imperative to take immediate action.” The health official described the approach as “fluid” and “case by case” with a preference to work collaboratively with companies — all sentiments similar to those in the governor’s veto message.
The health official came from a little-known division of the Public Health Department called the Occupational Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. Its primary role is to educate companies about lead, and it does a good job of that. OLPPP is also, however, the custodian of statewide lead testing results, and that data, which I studied, unequivocally showed a department extraordinarily reluctant to refer lead poisoning cases to Cal/OSHA.
Consider what happened at the former Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Vernon. Exide is infamous for having contaminated an estimated 10,000 nearby homes and yards with levels of lead unsafe for developing kids. While that slow-moving disaster was unfolding, it turns out that California’s Public Health Department knew that hundreds of Exide workers were chronically lead-poisoned. Yet between 2000 and 2014, when the plant closed as part of a deal to avoid federal criminal charges, the department never referred Exide to OSHA for enforcement. Not once.
Nor do Cal/OSHA or the Public Health Department seem to have learned anything from that debacle.
Currently, the Public Health Department is aware of dozens of companies in California, including indoor firing ranges and construction companies, whose workers recently had lead levels that would trigger automatic inspection in states like Texas, Arkansas and Oregon. In 2017, another Los Angeles-area battery recycling plant, Quemetco, had 111 workers with lead levels that could cause miscarriage or heart disease with prolonged exposure, including several high enough to trigger mandatory enforcement inspections elsewhere. In fact, the Department of Public Health has been recording elevated levels among Quemetco employees for decades, but has never called in Cal/OSHA for enforcement.
Brown can still help fix this mess. California most immediately needs effective communication between public health and Cal/OSHA officials, and an agreement that when lead levels reach a critical point, Cal/OSHA picks up the case. If Brown pushed Cal/OSHA to adopt the federal standards contained in the National Emphasis Program on Lead — as it has for chemicals at metal foundries and silica dust — those immediate problems would be solved. The state can always pass stronger measures in the future, but in the meantime workers shouldn’t be left in harm’s way by the gaps in this “fluid” and “case by case” system.
Joe Rubin is a Sacramento-based investigative reporter and a fellow with USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism. His reporting on workplace exposures to lead in California has appeared in Capital & Main.