Is your job poisoning you?

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A study‚ published in the South African Medical Journal this month‚ found that two shooting-range workers suffered from abdominal cramps and paraesthesia‚ which is an abnormal sensation like numbness or tingling‚ in their hands and feet.

Both these symptoms are consistent with lead poisoning.

The woman‚ 63‚ and the man‚ 27‚ both worked at a shooting range in greater Johannesburg and had no other sources of exposure to lead.

Blood analysis tests showed high levels of lead present in each of them. The man’s condition was so severe that he was required to be removed from his duties under South African health and safety laws.

The study said the conditions at the range‚ and the workers’ poor awareness of the risks associated with their work‚ raised major concerns.

“For both of the cases‚ despite long periods of work in a high lead-exposure setting‚ this was the first occasion on which they had undergone a blood lead test‚ indicating the need for a higher level of occupational health monitoring and vigilance in this vulnerable group of workers.”

The woman had been employed at the shooting range for 22 years as a cleaner and performed her duties with a dry duster‚ dry broom‚ an ordinary domestic vacuum cleaner and without protective gear. She cleaned the entire range and collected spent ammunition‚ which the owner sold for lead recycling.

The man worked as an instructor and administrator at the range for three years and had been shooting for nine years. Though he mainly used non-jacketed bullets‚ without lead heads‚ and wore hearing and eye protection‚ he used no other protective equipment.

He also sometimes placed bullets in his mouth and often ate at the range. According to the man’s family he suffered from mood swings and had difficulty controlling his anger since he began working there.

On-site observations at the range‚ like poor ventilation‚ carpeted floors and sponge-lined walls and no disposable towels or soap for hand washing‚ presented further health risks.

“The range was being cleaned with ordinary domestic brooms and dry cloths‚ rather than wet cleaning and the use of high-efficiency particulate air vacuum cleaner‚” the Journal reported.

The two employees were also placing their families in harm’s way‚ washing their clothes with that of their families and not cleaning up properly before going home. Lead particles may be transported via the skin‚ hair and clothing.

Lead exposure is associated with a range of health risks‚ including impaired cognitive function‚ hearing deficits‚ aggressive behaviour‚ anaemia‚ joint pain and‚ in severe cases‚ muscular paralysis and death.

“In the interests of the workers and their families‚ it is therefore imperative that the health‚ labour and industrial or commercial sectors join forces to ensure that measures are put in place to eliminate or significantly reduce lead exposure in shooting-range workers‚” the study said.

“These might include lead hazard awareness campaigns‚ the institution of shooting-range monitoring and surveillance programmes‚ and the development of guidelines or standards for the design and fitting of private shooting ranges in South Africa.”

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