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February 04, 2008 9:46 AM

Occupational lead exposure, especially to lead paint, has been a well known hazard in the workplace you decades. Recent epidemiological studies demonstrate the causal relationship of exposure to impaired brain function, over time, in adults, results in early aging. Employers and insurance carriers should brace themselves for a wave of claims. Occupational exposures over 30 years ago arise from the exposure to lead in paint, that has deteriorated and flaked off through: decomposition, friction, repair replacement or improper encapsulation, may trigger an enormous amount of expensive claims.

"The federal government has, through multiple agencies, extensively reviewed the health effects of lead upon workers. Coordinating their effort through the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) the federal government has alerted both employers and employees to the health hazards of lead and the techniques to be utilized when handling this hazardous substance.

"Lead, a bluish-gray metal, has been used since ancient times because of its unusual properties, such as a low melting point, pliability and resistance to corrosion. Hippocrates reported in 370 B.C. that a worker who had used lead suffered a severe case of colic. Lead is used in older American homes, and lead exposures occur in the workplace because of the widespread use of lead compounds during the past century in paints, gasoline and industry.

"The worker becomes exposed to lead when dust and fumes are inhaled and when lead is ingested through contamination on hands, water, food and clothing. When lead enters the respiratory and digestive tracts of the human body it is released to the blood and distributed throughout the system. More than 90% of the body's lead is accumulated in the bones where it is stored for many years. The bones then release the lead back into the blood stream and re-expose the system long after the original occupational exposure has ceased.

"Lead damages the blood-brain barrier and subsequently damages brain tissue. Workers exposed to lead may experience fatigue, irritability, insomnia, headaches and other subtle effects of mental and intellectual decline. Prolonged exposure to lead may present symptoms such as anemia. Lead inhibits the synthesis of heme and damages the ion transport system in the red blood cell membranes. Chronic high exposure to lead may result in chronic nephropathy and in some extreme cases, kidney failure. Gelman, Jon, Workers' Compensation Law 3rd ed., 38 NJPRAC 9.24 (West-Thomson 2008)

It has recently been reported in the scientific literature, that lead, absorbed into the blood stream over decades, may result in poor performance in a wide variety of mental functions. In a recent study, Dr. Brian Schwartz of Johns Hopkins University, remarked that lengthy exposure to lead, cumulative over years, may cause an aging brain to function at a level that is 5 years older that it really is. The Studies at Johns Hopkins objectively measured lead absorbed over a lifetime in human bodies. Dr. Brian Schwartz remarked, "We're trying to offer a caution that a portion of what has been called normal aging might in fact be due ubiquitous environmental exposures like lead."

Like asbestos and tobacco, lead exposure may cause a latent disease which causes the brain to deteriorate at an accelerated rate. Those who worked with lead, and those who were bystanders to lead exposures on the workplace, may have a workers' compensation benefits for the mental condition related to the lead exposure.

This significant new research relating lead exposure to aging puts insurance carriers and employers at risk for both direct claims under workers compensation systems and for claims against potential third parties, ie. property owners and paint manufacturers. Unlike tobacco and asbestos, these claims may be significantly more costly since because of the long potential long payment period of benefits under workers' compensation acts and the potential legions of workers who have been exposed in directly or indirectly.

 

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