My Experience of Living with the Aftermath of Occupational Lead Poisoning

by Wayne J. Askew

When people think of lead poisoning, many will think of it as a problem that applies only to children.  While young children are especially susceptible to the toxic effects of lead, given their stage of development, I’m a living example that lead poisoning can have devastating effects on people of any age.  Lead poisoning in adults is a topic that gets little attention; I’m hoping to help get the word out by sharing my personal experience.

My lead poisoning story goes back to 1980 when, at age 21, I joined the United States Navy as a boatswain’s mate.  I was in prime physical and mental shape at the time, and was proud to join the generations of my family before me in serving my country at sea.

The primary responsibility of a boatswain’s mate is the upkeep of the ship’s structure.  I reported to the USS Leahy CG-16, which at the time was in a state of overhaul at Long Beach Naval Shipyard.  US Navy ships are covered with lead-based paint.  Wearing only my standard work uniform, a respirator, and googles, I was tasked with grinding the paint off the deck of the ship using pneumatic tools.  Meanwhile, the shipyard workers (who were civilian personnel) were tasked with removing the paint from the sides of the ship, using sandblasting methods.  It wasn’t until years later that I understood that the protections offered to us, and the clean-up efforts employed, were woefully inadequate in protecting people and the environment from the dangers of lead.  We were covered in lead dust from head-to-toe.  It was common practice to take meal breaks while dressed in the same clothes; some even slept in their cot with their work clothes still on.  Also, the debris was not adequately contained, thus contaminating the areas around the ship as well.  Clean-up consisted of sweeping up the debris with a dry broom.  Basically, there was potential for lead exposure for everyone on ship—regardless of rank—and for families visiting the shipyard while the overhauling process was taking place.  After standard work hours, families were allowed to come onto the ship to visit their loved ones.  It was not unusual to see my fellow shipmates hug their wives and children while still dressed in their lead-dust-laden work clothes.  None of us were ever told of the risks.

Photo: Wayne (center) and shipmates on USS Leahy CG-16 in c.1982. Photographer unknown

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) both acknowledge that there is no known safe level of lead in the body.  It is also important to note that lead exposure affects everyone differently depending on various factors such as how much lead is retained by the body, acute versus chronic low-level exposure, and even genetic characteristics.  Not everyone who is exposed to lead will develop symptoms of toxicity.  In addition, some might never know that they were poisoned because they experienced symptoms that can be easily misdiagnosed as other problems.

I was not diagnosed with severe lead toxicity until some years after leaving the Navy, when I was exposed to high levels of lead on a daily basis while working in the private sector.  However, my exposure in the Navy was not without consequence, either.  Before I entered the military, I was quiet and reserved—a wallflower, so to speak.  While serving in the Navy, my personality drastically changed:  I was quick to anger, and often found myself in physical altercations with others.  I started to drink alcohol, and found myself in frequent trouble with the law.  I guess I was your stereotypical “drunken sailor”.  The “sweet kid,” as my mother used to say of me, suddenly became the “black sheep” of the family.

My aggressive behavior did not go unnoticed by the Navy and, at first, was even valued.  I was increasingly entrusted with more dangerous tasks because of my “bravery”.  However, as time went on and I became more out of control, the Navy began to grow frustrated with my antagonistic nature.  At one point, in an attempt to get me back in line, I was sentenced to three days of solitary confinement in the brig, given only bread and water.  I was demoted from rate E-4 (Petty Officer Third-Class) to rate E-1 (Seaman Recruit) and was almost separated from the military on other-than-honorable terms.  I now know, in retrospect, that this aggressive phase I was experiencing was due to my lead exposure during the time that I served.  Temper and irritability are some of the first symptoms that adults experience from lead.  I often think about my shipmates, and I wonder what impact lead exposure had on their lives—I remember many who were thrown out of the service due to behavioral issues.  On a broader scale, I wonder about all naval personnel who have served throughout the years and how many of them have had the course of their lives changed because of the effects of lead—whether they were formally diagnosed, or not.

When I left active duty, I received a full physical by the Navy and was given a clean bill of health.  I entered civilian life and started a career in painting and historic home restoration.  I worked in Tompkins County, New York, and surrounding areas—a region with lots of historic architecture and century homes.  Restoring the exteriors of these homes is big business in this area.  In the late-1980s, when I was working in this industry, there was such a demand for these services that we even worked throughout the winter.  Exterior restoration involves taking off the old paint using a variety of tools and methods—e.g., high-speed electric grinders, torching, heat plates, and heat guns—before applying the new paint.

In the United States, lead in house paint was not banned until 1978, which means that almost every house we worked on carried with it the risk of lead exposure.  Restoration methods give off lead-containing dust and, if heat methods are used, lead-containing vapor as well.  We used only dust masks for protection, as that was deemed to be adequate by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) at that time.  And, just like in the Navy, workers took their lunch breaks while still dressed in dusty work clothes because nobody knew any better.  Some workers smoked cigarettes while working, creating frequent hand-to-mouth contact with lead-contaminated hands.

Employees were not the only ones exposed to lead from the job site.  No one I worked with changed into alternate clothes before getting into their vehicles to go home, thus contaminating their vehicles.  How many of them hugged their loved ones when they got home before changing out of their work clothes, and/or washed their work clothes with the regular family laundry instead of keeping it separate?  Probably most.

These restoration projects also put the homeowners and their neighbors at risk.  Lead dust was blown all over the neighborhoods because its containment at job sites was not regulated at the time.  And, if we’re going to be honest, there is little enforcement of existing rules to ensure that the public is protected today.  There are still companies and do-it-yourselfers that are not following lead-safe practices, all contributing to the various sources of lead exposure in our communities.  Rules are useless without proper enforcement.

As for me, it was my lead exposure while working in this industry that has left me permanently disabled with a degenerative condition.  I was diagnosed with lead poisoning when our entire work crew was tested, after a coworker of ours presented to the hospital with severe gastrointestinal distress and hallucinations.  Our coworker was found to have a blood lead level (BLL) of 150 µg/dL.  The rest of us all had vague symptoms, such as increased irritability, fatigue, lack of coordination, and occasional confusion; we had just passed it off as being tired from working long hours.  As it turned out, we were all lead poisoned with high BLLs.

My BLL from the first time I was tested was 68 µg/dL.  I was chelated at the hospital and told that I could safely return to work with the new protections that OSHA had put in place after reviewing our case.  Unfortunately, this proved to not be enough.  Upon retesting, after having only been back to work for a month or two, my lead level went up to 88 µg/dL.  By this time, I was having more severe physical symptoms, such muscle weakness due to the neurological damage I sustained.  Unfortunately, the damage done was irreversible and I was no longer able to work.

I am now 57 years old, but feel like I’m in a 90 year old’s body. Lead poisoning has left me with brain damage, peripheral neuropathy, muscle atrophy, joint problems, hypertension, cardiomyopathy, fatigue, problems with hearing acuity, and chronic pain.  My condition is degenerative; over the years I have been experiencing a decline both physically and cognitively.  I can only walk for short distances, while experiencing pain with every step.  I am mostly bedridden at this point, and every day I fear losing the little mobility that I have left.  From a cognitive functioning perspective, I have been diagnosed with toxic encephalopathy, which left me with permanent brain damage causing short-term memory problems, ADHD-like symptoms, and a bipolar-like syndrome.  On top of it all, over the last year I’ve been struggling with a lack of appetite and have to supplement what little I eat with protein shakes in order to maintain an adequate weight.

Despite my struggles, I will never give up.  Over the last three decades I have made lead poisoning awareness my life’s work, and there’s still so much more that needs to be done.  Over the years, I’ve worked with the media and politicians to help spread awareness about the dangers of lead exposure and the need to better protect the public.  Recently, I have expanded my advocacy efforts to social media.  My Facebook group, Truth about Lead, is a public group where people can share and discuss personal experiences, lead stories in the news, lead-related research, and advocacy efforts.  I welcome anyone that is interested to join our online community to learn more and to share in the discussion.  You can also follow me on Twitter:  @WayneAskew3.