Study: Construction Workers May Bring Toxic Metals Home From Worksites

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A recent analysis by Construction Dive explains construction workers are likely to carry home toxic chemicals from their worksites when handling paint, wood treatment solutions, and other materials that contain metals.

A pilot study published in a forthcoming issue of Environmental Research found that construction workers may “unintentionally pick up” toxic chemicals at their worksites and carry them to their homes. As an analysis by Construction Dive explains, the chemicals in question include not only lead, but also “arsenic, chromium, copper, lead, manganese, nickel and tin,” which were found in construction workers’ homes “in higher levels” than in those of janitorial or auto professionals. 

“Construction workers are at risk for exposure to many toxic metals,” the study notes. Workers come into contact with toxic metals when they handle paint or wood treatment solutions; demolish or remodel structures like homes, tanks, vehicles, and bridges; recycle various materials that contain metals; and handle scrap metal. “For example, cadmium can be found in red brick and plastic substances, zinc in tiles, copper in aluminum alloys, chromium in cement, beryllium in rocks,” the study says. “In addition, arsenic, lead, cadmium, and chromium can be released from welding… or paints and dust when renovating older housing.”

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The Occupational Health and Safety Administration warned that workers’ exposures to these toxic chemicals can cause health conditions or even be fatal but they can avoid carrying toxins home by washing their hands, storing their equipment, changing their work clothes, and keeping their cars clean.

In methodological terms, the study involved the collection and evaluation of samples from the homes of 30 construction workers in the Boston area, all of them living with a child, “to identify potential home exposure. These evaluations showed that toxic metals often found in construction worksites “were higher in construction workers’ home dust compared to other workers, although not statistically significant.” It also found that “Sociodemographic/work/home-related variables” affect the concentration of these chemicals in the dust in workers’ homes.

As Construction Dive notes, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration has warned that high levels of exposure to chemicals like arsenic can have fatal consequences, while lower levels of exposure over sustained durations “can cause discoloration of the skin and corns or warts.” One of the study’s authors suggested that the study’s results point to the need for stronger preventative measures. “I realized how gravely we needed prevention, instead of being reactionary,” she told Construction Dive. She added that workers can help avoid carrying toxic metals home by storing equipment in lockers, not mixing their work and home clothes, washing their hands with soap and water, and regularly cleaning the insides of their cars. 

“If contractors or sites don’t provide those opportunities, there are still things workers can do to reduce risk,” Construction Dive adds. “Storing tools, boots or outerwear outside is an easy way to reduce the amount of dust entering the home.”

More information on the study finding that construction workers may bring traces of toxic metals home from their worksites is available via Construction Dive and Science Direct.

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