Lead Aprons Are a Lead Exposure Hazard [Article Summary]  

While multiples tests and studies have been conducted about the general safety of lead shielding aprons and clothing, testing has seldom been conducted to evaluate the presence of harmful lead dust on the exterior surfaces of the shielding itself. Bending, improper storage and deterioration of exterior apron material can all result in the production of lead dust as well as improper shielding from ionized bursts of radiation for patients and healthcare professionals.

According to a recent article titled “Lead Aprons Are a Lead Exposure Hazard” published by the American College of Radiology and available for download here, lead aprons and other lead-based shields can emit particulate lead into the occupational environment, resulting in the accumulation of lead dust on the skin and garments of workers. This subsequently enables “take-home exposure” of lead dust which has been associated with elevated lead blood levels. Elevated lead blood levels can cause lead poisoning in children and adults, which can have irreversible health effects on the nervous system, brain and kidneys. Prolonged exposure to minuscule amounts of lead over time can be asymptomatic, making occupational exposure to lead dust all the more serious.

The article chronicled the results of a study that measured the presence of lead dust on the exterior surfaces of lead aprons and other lead shielding articles commonly used in the fields of:

  • Radiology
  • Cardiology
  • Gastroenterology
  • Pain Management
  • Urology
  • Vascular Surgery
  • Orthopedic Surgery
  • Neurosurgery
  • Anesthesia
  • Dentistry

The study tested for the presence of lead dust on 172 actively used lead aprons at a single health care facility and the results were troubling, to say the least. According to the study, sixty-three percent of the shields had detectable amounts of lead on the outer surface.

More than half of lead aprons currently used at the health care facility featured in the study had substantial amounts of lead on the outer surface, resulting in a higher rate of exposure for staff and patients. The study attributed prolonged use, improper storage and loss of external integrity of the aprons as key factors associated with measurable amounts of lead dust being present on the outer surfaces.

Defects caused by the internal lead plates also affected the integrity of the stitching between the external and internal areas of the garment. This caused protrusions in the exterior of the apron which resulted in another avenue for particulate lead to escape onto the surface of the garment.

The study also found that lead-free aprons and garments—those that substitute lead with other equally protective elements—have no discernable traces of lead dust found on their exteriors. This is due to the lack of lead being used in the interior construction of non-lead shielding aprons; instead, amalgams of metals and plastics are used to provide equal protection without the harmful effects of potential lead dust accumulating on the exterior of the apron.

In Conclusion

The results of the study are concerning for professionals and patients who are required to utilize lead shielding aprons in the field or during treatment. While the results featured in the study cannot be generalized for every health care facility, sixty three percent of the facility’s lead aprons had quantifiable amounts of lead dust on their exteriors, meaning an increased risk of particulate lead inhalation by patients, health care professionals and children or families due to take-home exposure. Chronic lead exposure, which is often asymptomatic, results in an increased rate of serious health conditions and mortality.

Occupational lead dust exposure has repeatedly been reported as a source of lead poisoning in children and families of exposed workers as the lead is brought home on clothes and skin, where it is then inhaled. The study suggests that more rigorous tests should be employed to measure the safety of lead-based aprons and that non-lead aprons should be adopted by lead shield users to reduce the amount of particulate lead exposure for patients and occupational users.

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