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Michigan lowers acceptable blood lead levels for workers

"It's just a poke," a nurse told a toddler at a special lead clinic at Brownell Elementary School in Flint. The little girl disagreed, loudly.
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
It was the Flint water crisis that spurred Michigan doctors to look at how the state could revise blood lead level standards for workers in the state.

Michigan updated its blood lead levels for workers earlier this week, making it the first state to replace standards that were drawn up in the 1980s.  

Workers will now have to be removed from lead exposure when their blood lead levels reach 30 ug/dL – a substantial decrease from the previous level of 50 to 60 ug/dL. Under the new standards, employees cannot return to work until their blood lead level is below 15 ug/dL.

To put this in perspective, a press release from the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) states that the average blood lead level in the general population is 1.12 ug/dL.  

Doctors from the Michigan Occupational and Environmental Medical Association first suggested the change to state officials in mid-2016, after the Flint water crisis increased their concerns about lead exposure.

Dr. Ken Rosenman, MOEMA’s executive board secretary, says he and his colleagues were alarmed when they realized just how high blood lead levels could get among employees in lead-heavy industries throughout the state, like battery refurbishing and certain construction jobs.

“We've got this antiquated standard that allows adults to be exposed to so much lead, maybe we can work with this increased concern about lead to reduce exposures to adults,” says Rosenman.

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration officially implemented the new rules on Dec. 11. Rosenman anticipates the new standards will impact people beyond those who are exposed to lead at work.

“There's very good medical evidence that adults working with lead bring lead home on their clothes and their boots, and if they have children in their home, you know, under the age of six, that they're exposing those children,” he says.

Rosenman hopes Michigan’s action will prompt other states and the federal government to update their standards as well.

Maya Goldman is a newsroom intern for Michigan Radio. She is currently a student at the University of Michigan, where she studies anthropology and writing. During the school year, Maya also works as a senior news editor and podcast producer for The Michigan Daily.
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