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Why Can't We Fix Our Lead Problem?

By Doug Parker, Executive Director

This is National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. As we could have sadly predicted, all the attention and national outrage over the criminal disregard for the health of the people of Flint, Michigan has been forgotten as we have collectively had our head turned by Twitter and the NFL. This week is a good time to take a moment and think about what more we can do about an issue that’s hurting our most vulnerable neighbors.  

It barely registered with the public that lead is not just a Flint, Michigan problem. Last year a Reuters investigation reported that in some 3,000 U.S. communities, children have lead poisoning rates double those in Flint. Here in our backyard, in the Fruitvale District, home ofWorksafe’s Day Laborer collaboration with Street Level Health Project and Centro Legal De la Raza, children have a 7.6% rate of elevated lead levels in their blood. That’s the highest level for any community in California. The rate in Flint is 5%. 

We unfortunately don’t have comprehensive data on the day laborers we work with in Fruitvale (if any of our readers know of data or reports, please email me at But we know that a common source of lead exposure for children is lead introduced into the home from family members who are contaminated at work. If Fruitvale children have these levels of exposure, we can expect that the day laborers who are demolishing, sanding, and painting in that community are regularly exposed, not only to lead, but to asbestos and other dangerous materials. 

Statewide, a recent Department of Public Health report showed that among 38,000 workers who were screened over a three year period, 16% tested positive for elevated lead levels. Among a subset of workers who were screened two or more times, 20% tested positive at least twice, indicating chronic exposure.

A strategy to reduce lead exposure for children must include reducing lead exposures in the workplace. Occupational health and the health of our communities are one and the same when it comes to toxins like lead. The disproportionate impact on poorer communities, which have systematically gotten a raw deal on health risks, elevates our moral obligation to act, and reducing workplace exposures will help lead to positive health outcomes for everyone. 

That’s why Cal/OSHA and the Standards Board need to continue to push through the bureaucratic process on the currently stalled update to California’s outdated and inadequate lead standard. Unfortunately, a bill to exempt health and safety standards from burdensome and pointless cost analyses, like the one holding up the new lead standard, was not passed this legislative session, and so workers and their families will continue to wait for their government to help them.