Reducing Lead Exposure in Aircraft Maintenance Employees

LeadExposureIn 2012 the owners of an aircraft repair facility and flight school contacted the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to request a Health Hazard Evaluation. NIOSH is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and focuses on workplace safety and health. This evaluation was requested after blood tests revealed detectable lead levels in all four of the employees and a high blood lead level in a one-year-old child who was often brought to the workplace.

Exposure to organic forms of lead causes damage mainly to the nervous system in both children and adults while exposure to inorganic lead can affect every body system and is known to cause permanent neurological damage in children. Inorganic lead in the form of lead dust can be tracked out of the workplace and into homes resulting in lead exposure to employees’ families. Good work practices can prevent employees’ exposure to both forms of lead in the workplace and minimize the potential for “take home” lead.

Lead is an exposure hazard in the aviation industry, especially to those who work around aircraft that use fuel containing an organic form of lead, tetraethyl lead, such as aviation gas (Avgas) grades 100 and 100LL. Single engine aircraft are one of the few types of vehicles that still are allowed to use leaded gasoline in the U.S. It is estimated that 95 percent of the lead in the gasoline is expelled as inorganic lead dust in the aircraft’s exhaust while the remaining five percent gets trapped in the engine oil. This dust deposits on engine parts and external surfaces of the aircraft. Mechanics working on aircraft or in facilities that use leaded Avgas are at risk for lead exposure through ingestion and inhalation of lead particles. Ingestion occurs when hands touch contaminated surfaces and are not washed before eating, allowing lead particles to enter the body on food. Inhalation of lead dust can occur if employees breathe air from exhaust plumes or if lead dust that has already settled on the ground is lifted into the air. Exposure to tetraethyl lead can occur if employees inhale Avgas fumes or get the fuel on their skin.

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