Blood Lead Concentration and Biological Effects in Workers Exposed to Very Low Lead Levels

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A longitudinal study was carried out on two groups of workers engaged in tin/lead alloy welding in the telecommunication sector. The risk of exposure was evaluated by measuring levels of airborne lead (PbA) and the amount of lead absorbed (PbB). The correlated effects were assessed by determining zinc protoporphyrin (ZPP) and hemoglobin levels (Hb) and red blood cell (RBC) count. We also recorded subjective symptoms reported by workers. One group of welders composed of 365 subjects underwent two monitoring sessions performed in 1991 and 1995, respectively (Group A). A second group of welders (whose number fluctuated between 148 and 247 subjects) underwent yearly testing for 7 consecutive years (1988-1994; Group B). Results indicated a very low risk of lead exposure during microwelding operations (PbA range, 1.5-24 µg/m3). In fact, blood concentrations of Pb (range, 5-55 µg/dL) among both groups of welders were significantly higher than those in the general population in Rome (PbB range, 5-16 µg/dL); nevertheless, they were significantly lower than the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's permissible exposure limit ZPP determined only in Group B of welders ranged from 5 to 16 µg/dL (median, 22 µg/dL). No variation was found in the other biological parameters investigated, and no health effects were observed. During the study period, the introduction of some technological innovations led to a further reduction in Pb exposure and, subsequently, to its total elimination. PbB concentrations gradually declined to lower values (6-36 µg/dL), and it was interesting to note that ZPP concentrations also decreased to normal levels (range, 2-47 µg/dL; median, 11 µg/dL), demonstrating that the effect of lead on heme synthesis may occur even at very low levels of Pb exposure.

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