How Can Lead Affect Recyclers?

Lead is a naturally occurring, bluish-gray metallic element.  It is reported that the amount of lead in the environment today is over 100 times greater than in prehistoric times.  Humans have extracted lead from the Earth’s crust for thousands of years and for countless anthropogenic applications increasing the amount of lead in the surficial environment.  The increased presence of lead in the environment has increased human exposures to lead through time.  The United States uses about 50 percent of the world’s lead.  Lead has a number of modern commercial and industrial uses including the production of chemicals, paints, glazes, dyes, insecticides, solder, plumbing, ammunition, explosives, match heads, fishing sinkers, gasoline, and many more.  Lead was historically used as an additive in paint to accelerate drying, improve durability, and add moisture resistance. It’s malleability, density, and even sweet flavor (!) made lead useful to human societies as far back as the Roman Empire.   

Lead can cause damage to the brain, nervous system, and reproductive systems and is well-documented to cause irritability, confusion, and behavioral issues. Use of lead-based paint (LBP) was outlawed and largely ceased in the United States in 1978 due to its harmful effects. Automotive recyclers should make sure that their employees are familiar with the types of products, mostly manufactured before 1978, that may contain lead. If LBP or other lead-containing materials are ground, sanded, or otherwise disturbed, there is the potential for lead to be released into the air as dust. Lead dust poses two risks: breathing it in directly when it’s airborne and tracking it off-site on your shoes or clothes when it’s settled. Inadvertently inhaling or ingesting lead dust can result in damage to the brain and nervous system, resulting in learning and behavioral problems.

Automotive recyclers will benefit from being aware of common sources of lead, both presently and historically, that are likely to be associated with automobiles.  A couple of these are components painted or stained with lead, lead acid batteries used in automobiles, and tetraethyl lead.  Tetraethyl lead was historically used as a gasoline additive to prevent “knocking” in motors.  Exposure to tetraethyl lead presents its own unique risk—it’s a different animal.  It is an organic form of lead that differs from inorganic forms listed above in that it can be absorbed through the skin. Direct contact with tetraethyl lead can cause the same health issues as inhaling or ingesting lead or LBP dust.  The United States largely phased out the use of tetraethyl lead for vehicles beginning in the 1970s. Lead contamination in soil and groundwater may be present at automotive recycling facilities that were operational prior to and during the 1970s as a result of historical use of leaded gasoline.

For folks who grew up surrounded by LBP and leaded gasoline, the thought may occur, “I’ve already been exposed to lead throughout my childhood, why should I care now?” The truth is that children are most susceptible to lead poisoning because their bodies need more calcium than the rest of the population because they are growing.  What is the connection between calcium and lead?  If there isn’t enough calcium in the body, but lead was ingested and is present in the blood, lead will be substituted for the essential processes of growth and development.  The recycling industry can help prevent childhood lead exposure by implementing safe work practices, so that employees don’t inadvertently expose family members who may be more susceptible to the harmful effects of lead.

Taking precautionary measures like ensuring that PPE is used, stored, and disposed properly before employees go home will help reduce the risk of lead poisoning for both employees and their vulnerable family members and friends.

Protecting the health and safety of your workers is your first priority, but lead contamination at your yard can also cause regulatory issues. If and when a property is going to be sold or refinanced, lead contamination exceeding United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) or state-published levels can trigger the need to implement remedial actions, activity use limitations, and engineering controls to prevent migration of lead contamination off-site.  All of these can be costly. Understanding the history of your property and starting to rule out historical lead contamination—and other heavy metals for that matter—is a great way to get a baseline understanding of how concerned you need to be about lead. If it’s not already a problem, let’s not make it one!  Make sure you and your employees are educated about the products that potentially contain lead.  When those products enter the yard, ensure they are handled safely to prevent immediate and long term effects to your employees, their families, and your property.

As always, if you have any questions or would like any further information, please do not hesitate to contact VET at (812) 822-0400.

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