- Beyond the well-known danger of lead, construction workers may unintentionally pick up other harmful, toxic metals at work and inadvertently bring them home.
- The Harvard Take Home Study evaluated samples collected in 30 homes of workers living with a child in the greater Boston area to identify potential home exposure. Construction workers' homes had higher levels of arsenic, chromium, copper, lead, manganese, nickel and tin when compared to janitorial and auto workers in the study.
- Lead poisoning in children that results from dust unknowingly brought home by a worker is commonly called "take home exposure." But workers can bring other metals home, and there are no clear guidelines to gauge the safety levels of those metals even though they can cause health problems.
Exposure to some of these metals, such as arsenic, occur near or in hazardous waste sites or areas with naturally high levels in soil, rocks and water, according to OSHA. Others, like chromium, are used explicitly in construction, and OSHA warns workers in welding, painting, cement and more can face occupational exposure.
High exposure to arsenic can cause death, while lower exposure for longer periods of time can cause discoloration of the skin and corns or warts. Metals like chromium are carcinogens, with long-lasting health term effects potentially rising from extended exposure.
Diana Ceballos, assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health and one of the study's authors, said experts had learned much about how cases happen before this study, but not enough about stopping them.
"I realized how gravely we needed prevention, instead of being reactionary," Ceballos said.
The realities of construction work make it harder to find and prevent issues like this, she said. Construction workers spend large amounts of time outside. They work on different projects, sometimes during the same day. As a result, it can be challenging to track and prevent the accidental spread of harmful dust.
Prevention is key
Thankfully, simple practices — the same as those to keep lead out of the home — can prevent workers from carrying home toxic dust, Ceballos said. Workers who have lockers to store their equipment and who don’t mix their home and work clothing or gear were less likely to bring home toxic metals, the study found. Additionally, thoroughly washing hands and showering with soap and water can prevent the spread, as can regularly washing the inside of the worker's car.
If contractors or sites don't provide those opportunities, there are still things workers can do to reduce risk. Storing tools, boots or outerwear outside is an easy way to reduce the amount of dust entering the home.
COVID-19 has given many people a better understanding for how minute particles can spread, though it is not a perfect comparison, Ceballos said. Being aware when those harmful metals are on site and regularly cleaning up, taking more precautions or wearing PPE when around those areas can mitigate the risks.
"The bottom line is that lead prevention efforts that address the take home pathway, that stop the lead from going home, are very important, because they prevent not only lead take home exposure but other toxic metals," Ceballos said.