Inorganic lead dust is the most significant health exposure in battery manufacture. Lead can be absorbed into the body by inhalation and ingestion. Inhalation of airborne lead is generally the most important source of occupational lead absorption. Once in the blood stream, lead is circulated throughout the body and stored in various organs and body tissues (e.g., kidney liver, brain, bone marrow, bones and teeth). Absorption via the gastrointestinal track following ingestion is highly dependent upon the presence of levels of calcium, iron, fats, and proteins.
The effects of lead are the same whether it enters the body through breathing or swallowing. The main target for lead toxicity is the nervous system. Lead exposure may also cause anemia, a low number of red blood cells, which is characterized by weakness, pallor, and fatigue due to a lack of oxygen in the blood. In pregnant women, high levels of exposure to lead may cause miscarriages. High-level exposure in men can damage the organs responsible for sperm production. The following are additional sources of information about the health effects of lead exposure.
Short term (acute) overexposure
Lead adversely affects numerous body systems, and causes forms of health impairment and disease which arise after periods of exposure as short as days or as long as several years. Lead is a potent, systemic poison, which when taken in large doses, can kill a person in a matter of days. A condition affecting the brain called acute encephalopathy may arise which develops quickly to seizures, coma, and eventually death from cardiorespiratory arrest. Short term occupational exposures of this magnitude are highly unusual, but not impossible. Similar forms of encephalopathy may also arise from extended, chronic exposure to low doses of lead. There is no sharp dividing line between rapidly developing acute effects of lead, and chronic effects which take longer to acquire.
Long term (chronic) overexposure
Chronic overexposure to lead may result in severe damage to the blood‑forming, nervous, urinary, and reproductive systems. Some common symptoms of chronic overexposure include loss of appetite, metallic taste in the mouth, anxiety, constipation, nausea, pallor, excessive tiredness, weakness, insomnia, headache, nervous irritability, muscle and joint pain or soreness, fine tremors, numbness, dizziness, hyperactivity and colic. In lead colic there may be severe abdominal pain.
Central Nervous System
Damage to the central nervous system and the brain (encephalopathy) is one of the more severe manifestations of lead poisoning. The most severe, often fatal, form of encephalopathy may be preceded by vomiting, feeling of dullness progressing to drowsiness and stupor, poor memory, restlessness, irritability, tremor, and convulsions. It may arise suddenly with the onset of seizures, followed by coma, and death. Some may experience muscular weakness as well. This weakness may progress to paralysis which is often observed as a characteristic "wrist drop" or "foot drop". It is a manifestation of a disease effecting the nervous system, called peripheral neuropathy.
Chronic overexposure to lead also results in kidney disease with few, if any symptoms appearing until extensive and most likely permanent kidney damage has occurred A progression to kidney dialysis or death is possible.
Chronic overexposure to lead impairs the reproductive systems of both men and women. Overexposure to lead may result in decreased sex drive, impotence, and sterility in men.
- Lead. OSHA Safety and Health Topics Page.
- 29 CFR 1910.1025, Lead. OSHA Standard.
- Appendix A, Substance data sheet for occupational exposure to lead.
- Lead. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Health and Safety Topic.
- Lead. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Workplace Safety and Health Topic.
- Health Hazard Evaluations: Occupational Exposure to Lead 1994 to 1999. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Publication No. 2001-113, (March 2001).
- Health Hazard Evaluation Report, Standard Industries, San Antonio, Texas. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) Report No. HETA-94-0268-2618, (December 1996).
- Lead Poisoning. University of Michigan Health System. Includes a section on "Can lead affect my baby when I’m pregnant or breastfeeding?" which provides information on the effects of toxic substances (including lead) on pregnancy.
Additional chemical hazards in battery manufacturing include possible exposure to toxic metals, such as antimony (stibine), arsenic (arsine), cadmium, mercury, nickel, selenium, silver, and zinc, and reactive chemicals, such as sulfuric acid, solvents, acids, caustic chemicals, and electrolytes. For additional information, see OSHA's Safety and Health Topics Pages on: