October 5, 2023

NIOSH Highlights Lead Exposure Concerns during Water Pipe Replacement

NIOSH has released a new document that provides guidance for protecting workers from lead exposure when replacing old lead water pipes with new, lead-free lines. “Reducing Workers’ Lead Exposure during Water Service Line Removal and Replacement” (PDF) notes that workers may be exposed to lead when working in pits excavated for water line replacement, when cutting and handling lead pipes and equipment, or when disconnecting and removing lead pipes. They may also encounter lead-contaminated soil during excavation, both when using heavy equipment like backhoes and when manually digging using shovels. NIOSH advises employers and workers on actions they can take to limit exposures through engineering controls, training, housekeeping and hygiene practices, blood lead level (BLL) and surface testing, and the use of personal protection equipment. The document also provides an extensive list of relevant resources.

“Lead is considered toxic to all organ systems and serves no useful purpose in the body,” the document states. The metal may enter the body through inhalation, ingestion, or contact with skin or eyes to potentially cause decreased nervous system function; weakness in the fingers, wrists, or ankles; and increased blood pressure. At higher levels, lead can damage the brain and kidneys, decrease fertility, and cause miscarriages. NIOSH’s document refers to a health hazard evaluation (HHE) that the agency conducted in 2019 for a group of city water department workers replacing lead water lines. The HHE found lead on workers’ hands, inside their work gloves, and on surfaces inside the workers’ truck and locker room.

Workers can bring lead into the home on their skin, clothing, shoes, and personal items. These take-home exposures may affect family members, including children. No safe BLL has been identified for children, and lead exposure among children is associated with developmental and neurological disorders. According to NIOSH, CDC “considers a BLL of 3.5 μg/dL or higher in a child to require public health action.”

The new document, “Reducing Workers’ Lead Exposure during Water Service Line Removal and Replacement,” is part of NIOSH’s Workplace Solutions series, which offers practical recommendations for protecting occupational safety and health. It may be downloaded as a PDF from the agency’s website.