High lead levels in office for lead prevention

Shabby Lawrenceville building's peeling paint is likely source

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Extremely high, potentially unhealthy levels of lead dust have been found in the Allegheny County Health Department's dilapidated office building in Lawrenceville that houses the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.

A series of "wipe sample" tests done in Building One of a county-owned complex at Penn Avenue and 40th Street found consistently high lead dust levels on second-floor windowsills in the lead program offices and in third-floor offices occupied by the county's Food Safety Division.

The highest test reading of 337,000 micrograms per square foot was taken in August from an interior windowsill in the second-floor office of the county lead program's supervisor. The test is performed by wiping the sill with a cloth from a kit, which is then sent to a lab for analysis.

Results of tests done Dec. 2 and 3 in Building One found lead dust levels of 32,800 micrograms per square foot on a windowsill in Room 305 and 10,900 micrograms per square foot on a windowsill in Room 309 -- both food safety division offices. The tests found 8,400 micrograms per square foot on a windowsill in Room 201, a lead program office.

When lead program inspectors visit and conduct wipe sample tests at the homes of children whose blood contains high levels of lead, they recommend remedial actions such as removing lead paint and thoroughly cleaning homes where lead levels are found to be higher than 250 micrograms per square foot.

The August office test results at the Health Department building are almost 1,500 times higher than that, and one of the December tests found lead levels 150 times higher.

The source of the lead has not been determined, but Nina Ewall, a county lead program inspector, said a likely suspect is the building's peeling, lead-based paint.

Children who visit Building One for lead blood testing on the second floor and tuberculosis screening on the first floor are at minimal risk because they are in the building only a short time, environmental and occupational health experts said. But they said the risk to more than two dozen county workers in the building could be much higher.

"The first thing the county needs to do is have the workers' blood lead levels tested and then get them out of there until the place is lead-free," said Dr. Herbert Needleman, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and a nationally recognized expert on the effects of lead exposure in children.

"Those numbers are terribly high and that's unsustainable exposure. The place should be locked up until the lead is taken care of."

Exposure to lead -- through ingestion or inhalation of airborne particles -- can cause lead poisoning. In children, exposure to lead can cause damage to developing nervous systems, loss of IQ, learning disabilities and behavioral problems, according to a poster hanging last week in the second-floor hallway outside the lead program's offices.

Adults exposed to high levels of lead can develop such health problems as hypertension, high blood pressure, headaches, pregnancy and reproductive problems, nerve disorders and memory problems.

Ms. Ewall, the inspector who performed the wipe tests in the offices earlier this month, said county officials have been slow to address what she termed "astronomically high" lead levels. She said supervisors have known about the high lead levels at least since another employee performed the August test.

"I'd really like something done about this. And they've done nothing," said Ms. Ewall, who has worked in the county lead program for two years. "I think it's a hazard to the workers and to have children come in here and give blood samples in this building is just not right."

Ms. Ewall, who has high blood pressure, was concerned enough after she learned about the August test results to have her own blood tested. It did not show high lead levels then. She has not had it tested again. She said the wipe sample readings from her office building are higher than those found by county inspectors earlier this year at a basement gun range where the owner was diagnosed with lead poisoning.

"People come into this building. It's a public building. Children come in," she said. "I've been doing wipes there since I began working and they've always been high. I've been told not to say anything but I don't want to be complicit."

Earlier this month, Ms. Ewall and a representative of her union met with Dr. Bruce Dixon, executive director of the county Health Department, to discuss her concerns about the test results.

Dr. Dixon said the lead levels measured in Building One pose "no health hazard" to adult workers there, some of whom, like Ms. Ewall, spend portions of their workday outside the office. He said many old buildings in the county have lead issues and the lead test results from Building One should be viewed in that perspective.

"If they were children [exposed], I might agree, but adults don't have the same problems with lead," Dr. Dixon said. "We just need to do a better job housekeeping. Children can ingest lead, but we don't see health problems with adults at these levels.

"The fact that the worker who has talked about this had her blood level measured and it was low supports that."

But the kind of housekeeping done in Building One may be making the problem worse. Unless custodians are dusting with wet wipes and using vacuums equipped with high efficiency particulate air filters, the cleaning staff is just stirring up the lead dust and making it airborne instead of removing it, said Dr. Conrad Dan Volz, assistant professor for Environmental & Occupational Health at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health.

Dr. Dixon said custodians are not using vacuums with HEPA filters in the building.

Dr. M. Jeffery Shoemaker is the director of the Pennsylvania Health Department's Division of Chemistry and Toxicology in Exton, Chester County, where the wipe samples taken from Building One were analyzed. He called the readings a concern, even for adults, and said it would be prudent to conduct tests of blood lead levels on all workers in the building.

"We don't like to see people exposed to high levels of lead because it has a lot of deleterious effects on the human body," said Dr. Shoemaker, who is a chemist. "And those lead levels sound very high. If there's a lot of lead in an environment, it's certainly not a good thing."

During renovations of older homes, Dr. Shoemaker said, it's not unusual to see lead measurements around 1,000 micrograms per square foot, but "test results in the 10,000s are not a usual situation."

"And if it's a health department," he said, "we might expect them to live up to a higher standard than everyone else."

But tight county budgets have delayed or deferred renovations and maintenance in Building One and the other six buildings in the Health Department's Clack Health Center campus.

Two of those buildings were part of a historic Civil War arsenal. The other five, including Building One, were part of a federal health care complex that was built almost 90 years ago and acquired by the county in 1959. All are badly deteriorated, with lead-based paint peeling off ceilings and walls. Several have leaky roofs, drafty windows and other maintenance problems.

In Building One, a leak in a third-floor bathroom has caused paint and plaster to crumble and fall off second-floor ceilings. In a third-floor food inspection office, shower curtains are tented over the desks of two workers to catch water leaking through the roof and falling paint and plaster -- just as they were eight years ago.

The county Health Department has run its Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program since the mid-1980s. The five-person program is funded with federal money channeled through the state Health Department. In a statement released Thursday, the state Health Department said it will work with the county to ensure that there is no health risk to employees administering the program.

No employees in the building have contacted other regulatory agencies about the test results. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has no jurisdiction over state, county or local office workplaces, but the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry does and would investigate worker health safety allegations if a complaint is filed.

Dr. Paul Lioy, deputy director of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, said that given the lead dust levels already found, "the smart thing to do is have everyone tested" and work quickly to encapsulate the lead by repainting over it or removing it.

"There's more than a little irony in this situation," said Dr. Lioy, who has studied exposure to environmental and occupational pollution and who worked last year in Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. "This sounds like a serious public health issue that has to be remediated in some way or another.

"It's a classic situation in a building built years ago. The lead paint will chip and flake off windowsills and door jams. It's another environmental legacy for Pittsburgh."

Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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