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Epidemiologic Notes and Reports Blood Lead Levels among Office Workers -- New York City

On February 15, 1985, morning and afternoon water samples from drinking fountains in the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building (JFB) in New York City were collected because of the poor taste of the water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tested samples from five of the 41 floors of the 19-year-old JFB for the presence of heavy metals. . Elevated levels of lead were reported for the afternoon samples from fountains at the north end of the building; concentrations ranged from 100 ug/l to 210 ug/l; the EPA standard maximum contaminant level for lead in drinking water is 50 ug/l. Levels of copper were also elevated (up to 5,900 ug/l).

Repeated testing for lead content of the water from the intake pipes into the building, from the JFB storage tanks, and/or from the drinking fountains and bathroom sinks on the floors of the JFB was undertaken by the EPA on April 18, by a private engineering firm on April 29 and June 10, by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection on May 13, and by the New York City Department of Health (NYCDH) on May 15 and May 17. The highest concentrations of lead were found in water from the north intake pipe sampled through a freshly lead-soldered spigot and were 14,400 ug/l on April 29 and 1,070 ug/l on May 15. Of 68 water samples taken from drinking fountains and sinks on 12 floors of the JFB (including the originally tested five floors) and tested by either the NYCDH in May or the private engineering firm in June, 67 samples had acceptable levels of lead; one sample, from an unused fountain, had an elevated lead level of 151 ug/l.

On May 20, the use of drinking water from the entire JFB was temporarily discontinued in favor of bottled water. The intake pipes, which contained lead solder and had sampling taps with lead solder joints, were subsequently replaced with stainless steel pipes; the mechanical water chillers, which had copper tubing, were repaired; and the corrosiveness (acidity) of the water was decreased.

Because of the uncertainty of employee exposure to lead and the duration of any exposure, a voluntary screening program for blood lead was offered July 9 and July 10 to all of the approximately 10,000 federal employees who worked in the JFB to determine the extent of lead absorption (Table 2). Three hundred sixty-nine (4%) of the employees were tested for blood lead levels. Each employee provided demographic information and exposure-related data concerning the average daily amount of water consumed in the JFB. Blood lead determinations were made at the NYCDH Toxicology Laboratory by atomic absorption spectrophotometry (extraction method) with a lower limit of detection of 10 ug/dl.

Of the 369 employees, 188 (51%) were women. The women ranged in age from 16 years to 74 years (median 37 years); the men ranged in age from 23 years to 69 years (median 42 years). Six women reported they were pregnant, and one woman reported she was possibly pregnant. Two hundred thirty-eight (64%) of the employees resided in New York City; the others lived in New York City suburbs.

Of the employees tested, 85% had blood lead levels of 10 ug/dl or lower. The highest detected blood lead level, found in one employee, was 27 ug/dl. The percentage of employees with blood lead levels greater than 10 ug/dl increased significantly with increasing age, with a drop-off among persons aged at least 60 years (p 0.05) (Table 1). Blood lead levels did not differ significantly among persons when categorized by sex, agency of employment, floor of employment, self-reported average daily consumption of water while at work, or place of residence. Of the seven pregnant or possibly pregnant women, six had blood lead levels of 10 ug/dl or less, and one had a level of 13 ug/dl. Reported by L Budnick, MD, H Young, MD, Div of Federal Employee Occupational Health, V Chang, MD, US Public Health Service, Region II, B Kaul, PhD, B Davidow, PhD, New York City Dept of Health Laboratories; National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note:The water in the JFB intake pipe was apparently contaminated with lead from solder in the pipes and from the lead-soldered sampling tap. If the drinking water on all floors was contaminated with excess lead, either the level was insufficiently elevated, the duration of exposure was too short, or the amount of consumption was too small to result in any evident increase in absorption and blood lead levels among the employees. Nevertheless, the water distribution and chilling systems have been repaired, and the water in the JFB is now being filtered and chilled to decrease the concentration of heavy metals. The water is being monitored quarterly to ensure good drinking water quality; the initial tests revealed that all water samples had lead levels within standard limits.

None of the 369 adults tested had abnormal absorption of lead from the environment, as evidenced by the blood lead levels. The majority of office workers tested had blood lead levels of 10 ug/dl or less. A national survey of adults revealed a mean blood lead level of 9.2 ug/dl in 1980, a 37% decline over 4 years (1). Overall, for the 4 years 1977-1980, the national survey revealed age-group-specific mean levels for adults of between 13.1 ug/dl and 15.3 ug/dl, with the peak among persons aged 45-54 years (2). The results of the New York City survey parallel the national survey. In addition, nationally, blood lead levels were higher among urban residents (2).


  1. Annest JL, Pirkle JL, Makuc D, Neese JW, Bayse DD, Kovar MG. Chronological trend in blood lead levels between 1976 and 1980. N Engl J Med 1983;308:1373-7.

  2. Mahaffey KR, Annest JL, Roberts J, Murphy RS. National estimates of blood lead levels: United States, 1976-1980: association with selected demographic and socioeconomic factors. N Engl J Med 1982;307:573-9.

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