Four employees who work in a Veterans Affairs records office in north St. Louis have tested positive for higher than average levels of lead in their blood, though officials stressed that the measurements still fall within the range that is normal for U.S. adults.
The results come after a federal safety regulator cited the Goodfellow Federal Center complex for high levels of lead dust in a file room occupied by the Veterans Affairs Records Management Center. The building, a former World War II ammunition plant, was converted into government office space in the 1960s.
After the citation in June, VA medical personnel tested 75 employees for lead exposure. Four received test results above 2 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, but below 3.36 micrograms, according to a letter sent by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Because the levels fell within what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers a normal range for U.S. adults, the regulators recommended no further testing.
CDC officials define an “elevated” blood lead level at 5 micrograms, but the National Institutes of Health maintain that “no amount of lead is safe.” The average among U.S. adults is 1.2 micrograms per deciliter.
Bill Tyler, president of Local 2192 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents federal employees in St. Louis, said some have expressed concerns about their exposure.
“We’ve had employees that have been pregnant, working in there, and they’ve had miscarriages," Tyler said. "If it’s from the dust, we don’t know."
Tyler said pregnant employees have asked not to go into the areas where the lead dust was found, and he’s asked them to obtain statements from their doctors to request accommodations.
Though miscarriages are not uncommon, even in healthy women — 10 to 25 percent of recognized pregnancies miscarry — lead exposure at high levels can put a developing fetus at risk. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure, but high levels of lead in adults can also have an adverse effect on the heart, kidneys and reproductive systems.
“We do not want our employees working in unsafe environments,” Tyler said. “Us being the government, we should set the standard.”
VA officials closed the building for 30 days to clean the area and are soliciting bids for a full remediation.
Aaron Givens, assistant director for Veterans Benefits Management System, said all employees have been provided with protective gear like latex gloves and safety gowns. Most have chosen not to use them, he said.
“We’re in the same area as they are, they’re in it more frequent than they are. But we have to wake up and see their faces every day," Givens said. "We want to make sure they’re safe, and I think we’ve put things in place to make sure they’re comfortable and safe.”
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