Workers' lead poisoning probed by House panel Construction trades targeted

March 05, 1993|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- When Baltimore County steel painter Roy Gentry started blasting encrusted paint from the eaves of Washington's Old Executive Office Building last summer, he didn't know that a few weeks on the job would send him writhing in agony to a hospital and poison his 2-year-old son.

Lyndon Gross, a once-active 25-year-old ironworker from Calvert County, uses a crutch now for his weakened legs and can barely flex his hands after working six months in 1991 with a construction crew scouring paint off the steel girders of a Washington overpass.

Boxing, cycling and weightlifting were favorite pastimes of College Park, construction painter Luis Escobar, 38, until a company hired him to sandblast bridges in a Maryland highway maintenance project. It led to waves of nausea, stomach cramps, headaches and depression, and left him unfit for manual work.

The two men recounted their experiences with lead poisoning on Capitol Hill this week when a House subcommittee delved into causes and effects among construction workers who, though often exposed to the deadly dust of lead-based paint, are probably the least protected by safety regulations of any industrial workers.

"Right now these workers are essentially flying without a safety net," said Dr. Philip Landrigan of New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

An air of urgency has crept into the lead poisoning debate since President Clinton launched his job enhancement program last month with a proposal to boost expenditure on highway and bridge maintenance from $15.3 billion to $18.3 billion this year.

Nearly 90 percent of the 208,500 steel bridges in the United States are coated with lead-based paint, according to E. Dean Carlson, the Federal Highway Administration director. And nearly half of them -- 103,000 -- are classified as being in need of refurbishment, he added.

Federal regulations currently require construction workers to undergo blood sampling for lead, but the accepted limit for those workers is four times higher than for workers in the maritime and agriculture industries. It is also four times higher than the limit Maryland law imposes before requiring a worker to be withdrawn from a work site.

In 1983, Maryland became the first state -- and is still one of only a handful -- to go beyond the federal standards and include construction workers in the lead safety net.

Often the workers carry lead paint dust home on their clothes and shoes, poisoning their children, who can suffer irreparable brain damage.

Mr. Gentry's son 2-year-old Evan was lucky. Doctors say he did not suffer permanent brain damage, though the lead level in his blood was extremely elevated from the paint dust on his father's clothing.

Adding to the problem is the fact that only 25 states currently run their own occupational safety programs.

OSHA is due to issue revised lead standards by April 26 under the Housing and Community Development Act of 1992. The standards are expected to give construction workers the same level of protection as other industries.

Medical specialists at the congressional hearing urged the federal government to ensure that the new standards are applied to industry, especially construction.

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