Construction workers can be at risk of inadvertently exposing family members to toxic metals brought home from worksites, a newly published pilot study from Boston University and Harvard public health researchers indicates. But there are ways to minimize the risk.

The study, which is being published in the June 2022 volume of the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research, analyzes dust samples from the homes of 27 Boston area workers, including 21 construction and a handful of janitorial and auto repair workers, for a variety of toxic metals sometimes found in construction materials. The study doesn’t specify which construction trades the study participants work in, but states that the workers were recruited through community organizations and unions, with a focus on low-income and immigrant workers.

The findings show higher levels of arsenic, chromium, copper, manganese, nickel and tin dust in construction workers’ homes compared to the homes of the other workers. Work-related factors such as not having a work locker, mixing work and personal items, encountering material dust at work, not washing hands after work and not changing clothes after work were associated with higher metal dust levels, the researchers found. 

The authors attributed the higher levels of the toxic metals in the construction workers’ homes to what’s known as “take-home exposure.” The term has previously been used to describe cases in which a worker unintentionally carries home trace amounts of lead, contaminating living spaces and affecting others there, including children. 

It can be particularly challenging to prevent take-home exposures in construction because workers often change worksites and do not always have a place to change, store or wash clothes at work, says Diana Ceballos, the study’s lead author.

Take-home exposure of lead has been studied in the past. Ceballos has personally worked on investigations into children’s lead poisoning related to a parent’s occupation for CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. But Ceballos says she was surprised by how little is known about take-home exposure to other metals, and the lack of regulation in terms of child safety. She suspects the problem may be bigger than is known. 

“Given the lack of policies and trainings in place to stop this contamination in high-exposure workplaces such as construction sites, it is inevitable that these toxic metals will migrate to the homes, families, and communities of exposed workers,” she said.

Similar to lead, children are more sensitive to the toxic metals the study examined. And the health risks associated with these materials can result from small amounts of exposure accumulating over time. Fortunately, Ceballos says, take-home exposure risks can be reduced by following best practices. 

To protect workers and their families, workplaces should provide washing facilities and wipes that specifically remove metals from skin, as they can be hard to wash away with only soap and water, Ceballos says. She adds that workers should change clothes before they go home, and that they should have the ability to store work items and PPE on site, adding that there should also be more education and resources available at worksites. The authors also call for home interventions, like those that exist for lead exposure, to be explored for exposure reduction from other metals.

The study was funded by the Harvard JPB Environmental Health Fellowship, Harvard T.H. Chan and Boston University schools of public health Center for Research on Environmental and Social Stressors in Housing Across the Life Course, National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Ceballos is currently recruiting participants for another study that will test the effectiveness of home interventions in preventing take-home exposure. She hopes that study will yield more data to corroborate this pilot, and identify the most effective steps to mitigate toxic metals at home.