Construction workers may unwittingly expose their families to a variety of harmful metals

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Take-home exposures—toxic pollutants brought home from work unintentionally, exposing children and other family members—are a well-documented public health risk, but the majority of research and treatments have focused on lead take-home exposure. Take-home exposures to other hazardous metals are even less well understood.

Now, a new study done by a researcher at the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) shows that construction workers, in particular, are at significant risk of bringing a slew of additional dangerous metals into their homes by accident. The survey finds and counts the most metals—30—in the residences of construction workers so far.

Construction workers had greater amounts of arsenic, chromium, copper, manganese, nickel, and tin dust in their dwellings than janitors and auto mechanics, according to the findings, which were published in the journal Environmental Research.

Metal concentrations in the dust of employees’ homes are also affected by overlapping sociodemographic, occupational, and home-related characteristics, according to the study.

This new information emphasizes the need for more proactive and preventative actions at construction sites to limit these dangerous exposures.

“Given the lack of policies and trainings in place to prevent this contamination in high-exposure workplaces like construction sites, it is unavoidable that these toxic metals will migrate to the homes, families, and communities of exposed workers,” says study lead and corresponding author Dr. Diana Ceballos, an assistant professor of environmental health and director of BUSPH’s Exposure Biology Research Laboratory.

“While many professions are exposed to toxic metals at work, construction workers have a harder time applying safe procedures when they leave the jobsite due to the type of transient outdoor surroundings they operate in and a lack of training on these topics.”

Ceballos and colleagues from BUSPH and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recruited 27 Greater Boston workers to participate in this pilot study from 2018 to 2019, focusing primarily on construction workers but also including janitorial and auto repair workers, to better understand the sources and predictors of take-home exposure to metals dust.

The researchers went to the workers’ houses and took dust vacuum samples, gave them questions about work and home-related activities that could affect exposure, and performed other observations to assess the metal concentrations in their homes.

Higher levels of cadmium, chromium, copper, manganese, and nickel were linked to a variety of sociodemographic and work- and home-related factors, including lower education, construction work, lack of a work locker to store clothes, mixing work and personal items, lack of a place to launder clothes, not washing hands after work, and not changing clothes after work.

Many construction workers, according to Ceballos, live in disadvantaged communities or inferior homes that may already contain dangerous metals, which exacerbates the problem.

“Given the intricacy of these issues,” she says, “we need interventions on all fronts—not only policies, but also resources and education for these families.”