Rest easy, metalheads. This article will not be expounding the harmful decibel levels or dubious lyrics of your favorite bands. Instead, it will present a concise overview of a serious health hazard — workplace exposure to heavy metals — and provide practical, relatively simple ways to help guard against their potentially harmful effects.
“Heavy metals” is a term used to describe over a dozen elements that are classified as either metals or metalloids (elements that have both metal and nonmetal characteristics). Examples include arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium and manganese. The permanency of these elements (they cannot be degraded or destroyed) means that heavy metals are persistent in all parts of the environment.
How exposure occurs
Contact points are seemingly everywhere. They range from entire mines, foundries, smelters (copper, zinc and lead), and coal-burning power plants to combustion by-products, vehicle emissions, batteries (various) and the manufacturing of chemicals and glasses (arsenic). They also include cable coverings, plumbing, ammunition, fuel additives (lead), cigarettes, dental alloys, electroplating, motor oil and exhaust (cadmium); thermometers, thermostats, and dental amalgams. Even seafood (mercury) is a possibility. An increasing dose of exposure to heavy metals can produce bio-accumulation in the body, eventually resulting in toxicity.
Exposure to heavy metals can cause a multitude of serious health concerns, including: neurological impairment (lead), mental confusion, muscle and joint pain, headaches, short-term memory loss, gastrointestinal issues, allergies, vision problems, chronic fatigue and kidney failure. Persons experiencing heavy metal toxicity can be treated by physicians. However, the effects of toxicity can be suffered for extended periods and may not be fully reversible.
Going on the defensive
To proactively guard against heavy metal exposure, there are three key points to bear in mind:
1. Knowledge: Make sure you know exactly what substances with which you are working. It’s as simple — yet critical — as reading the material safety data sheet.
2. Protection: Wear the required personal protective equipment (PPE) — that means every item specified. These may include respirators, eyewear, aprons or sleeves, and the appropriate gloves.
3. Skin Hygiene: Practice consistent and thorough hand hygiene to remove contamination from the skin.
Skin care and hand hygiene
For skin exposures to heavy metal dusts, the following recommendations can be made:
Only the power chords of Led Zeppelin, Kiss and Black Sabbath could equal the harmony that knowledge, PPE and skin hygiene can provide in helping reduce the effects of heavy metal exposure in the workplace (insert guitar riff here).
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