ANCHORAGE - Blood tests of more than 2,700 Alaska workers tested for lead showed amounts that federal health officials consider unhealthy.
Roughly one in 10 of the workers, many of them mine employees, had an amount of lead that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considered unhealthy.
Most of the workers did not exceed the CDC's health criteria for lead. Of the 308 workers who did, more than 90 percent were employed in the mining industry, according to state health officials.
State health epidemiologists are concerned that the overall trend of exposures to lead in Alaska workers between 1995 and 2006 did not follow a decline occurring nationally.
Doctors and labs provided lead test results from 2,710 workers.
The Alaska workers had a lower rate of severe lead exposures but a higher annual rate of moderately high exposures when compared to workers tested in a national lead survey.
The findings were published by the state Department of Health and Social Services, which has tracked lead levels in Alaskans since 1995.
Lead poses an increased risk of hypertension, anemia and central nervous system, kidney and reproductive problems. Workers in construction, demolition, lead mining and battery manufacturing often are exposed.
The Health Department has no authority over the mines or other employers.
"We're looking at it from a medical point of view," not as regulators, said Lori Verbrugge, the Department of Health's environmental health program manager.
Of the 308 Alaska workers whose blood lead level was at or above the CDC's criteria, 94 percent worked in mining, 5 percent in demolition, and the rest at firing ranges, auto repair shops and remediation projects.
At the national level, manufacturing is the biggest source for occupational lead exposures.
In Alaska, most of the blood test results for lead came from the Red Dog mine near Kotzebue, according to Sophie Wenzel, a state epidemiologist who wrote the Health Department report.
Red Dog has been proactive in dealing with lead in its workers and in sharing its data with the state, Wenzel said.
Since opening in 1989, two Red Dog mine workers have been removed from their jobs due to lead exposure, said Wayne Hall, Red Dog senior environmental coordinator. The workers were not wearing protective gear as required or using proper hygiene, he said.
"It's very essential that the employee uses those devices," he said.
Since 1995, 33 workers filed cases with the state Division of Workers' Compensation claiming lead poisoning. Most cases were from construction or remediation work. A couple of the cases were related to mining.
Red Dog's blood lead surveillance program flags workers when their lead level reaches the CDC's criteria of 25 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.
The Greens Creek mine near Juneau, another lead producer, also monitors blood lead levels. The program flags workers when their lead level reaches 20 micrograms per deciliter.
That amount roughly equates to a tiny particle in a cup of water.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not require an employer to step up blood testing, investigate the job environment or provide counseling unless an employee's blood lead level hits 40 micrograms per deciliter.
The federal Mining Safety and Health Administration, which regulates mines, does not require blood testing for lead, but it inspects mines and requires them to report poisonings.
Despite monitoring by the mines, Alaska workers' lead levels are not declining, the report shows.
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