It is a well known fact that gases and fumes in welding smoke are toxic and can harm many different organs of the body. Multiple research studies show that welders have increased risk of many long-term diseases and chronic health problems, including cancer, and there definitely is evidence that brain damage is a danger.
Over the decades, researchers have identified the most harmful substances that welders are exposed to, including manganese, lead, asbestos, chromium, aluminum and arsenic. They have also identified a multitude of adverse health effects that can, and do, result from exposure. However, even though there is proof that a very strong link exists between hazardous welding fumes and brain damage, relatively little information is available. We do know that in addition to cancer, dreaded diseases that have been strongly linked to hazardous welding fumes include Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Some Proof That There Are Links Between Hazardous Welding Fumes and Brain Damage
Manganese Fumes Positively Linked to Brain Damage
It has been known for a long time that welding fumes can contain manganese and that manganese can cause neurological problems, even when low levels are involved. But a research study published in 2011 in the American Academy of Neurology magazine Neurology, found that there is a good chance previously healthy welders are at risk of developing brain damage. The part of the brain that was pinpointed is the same area that is affected when people develop Parkinson’s disease.
The study led by Dr. Brad A. Racette from the Washington University School of Medicine found that the neurotoxicity found in welders exposed to manganese was different to the dysfunctional brain patterns found in patients suffering from idiopathic Parkinson disease (IPD).
His primary concern was that with more than one million employees performing welding as part of their job description in the US alone, if a link between manganese fumes and neurotoxic effects could be proved, the public health impact for the US economy and its workforce would be “substantial.”
Racette’s study involved 60 people, 20 of whom were welders from Midwest shipyards and a metal fabrication company, none of whom had symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but all of whom had an average of 30,000 hours of welding exposure. Another 20 were people who weren’t welders, but who did suffer from Parkinson’s. The remaining 20 didn’t have Parkinson’s and they weren’t welders.
While the findings weren’t conclusive, they were sufficient to add to growing concern in terms of the negative effects of exposure to manganese fumes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has long warned about the potential neurological effects of manganese fumes during welding processes.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has been conducting its own research and reviewing published papers to try and assess the problem. This has highlighted the fact that exposure to low levels of manganese affect short-term memory, mood and seem to reduce hand-eye coordination. NIOSH has ascertained from published studies that welders are undoubtedly at risk of neurobehavioral and neurological health effects when exposed not only to manganese, but also to iron and lead. The heat, stress and carbon monoxide they are exposed to also plays a role.
In 2005, six years before Racette’s study results were published, Mayo Clinic published data relating to toxic damage caused to the nervous system and brain as a result of manganese fumes that are generated during welding processes. These findings were also published in Neurology. It was thought to be the first case series that proved a link between hazardous welding fumes and brain damage.
The Mayo Clinic study identified several symptoms in the study:
- Parkinsonian syndrome, which has symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease
- Multifocal myoclonus, which causes ultra-rapid twitches all over the body
- Vestibular-auditory dysfunction, that causes dizziness as well as balance and hearing problems
- Mild cognitive impairment similar to a concentration problem, but not the same as the precursor condition to Alzheimer’s.
Patients also became anxious, were shaky and irritable, and most suffered from sleep disorders.
Lead Poisoning Positively Linked to Brain Damage
The California Department of Public Health has warned that those working in more than 120 types of jobs – including welding – are currently exposed to lead, even though the dangers of lead poisoning leading to brain damage are well documented. When lead is heated (as it is during the welding process), both fumes and dust are formed, and if this is inhaled or swallowed, the consequences can be dire.
Mild symptoms of lead poisoning include fatigue and headaches, and so are often confused with the symptoms common for other illnesses. But the biggest problem is that lead is cumulative and over a long period of time it can appear throughout the body, in the bones and in soft tissue – and in the brain.
The scariest part is that while the dangers of lead are well known, many people don’t realize just how easy it is to come in contact with it. While it is banned for use in household paint and other products, lead primer is still found on many structures, including the Golden Gate Bridge in California. Those tasked with stripping the old paint or repairing the bridge are at risk. Other reported cases include:
- An iron and scrap metal plant in California where lead dust was literally permeating the skin and clothing of employees. Cadmium was also a major problem.
- A young Californian boy who became brain damaged by the lead dust his father brought home on his work clothes.
Exposure to Aluminum Positively Linked to Brain Damage
Researchers found out a long time ago that aluminum is neurotoxic and that exposure probably results in a number of neurological diseases including autism, Parkinson’s and dementia. Recently, a study at Keele University in the United Kingdom proved that a man who was exposed to aluminum dust in his workplace for about eight years, died of Alzheimer’s disease.
When welders work with aluminum, if the proper safety precautions aren’t taken, the aluminum dust will go directly into the lungs, into the bloodstream, through bones, and also into the brain. Once it has crossed the blood-brain barrier, aluminum accumulates, just like lead does, and can cause substantial brain damage.
The Proof Is There but Companies Still Ignore It
Just the other day a spokesman from Occupational Health and Safety (OSHA) warned that the failure of companies to limit employees’ exposure to dangerous substances was “inexcusable.” Robert Bonack said the 50,000 welders die every year from exposure to hazardous substances like chromium that is found in stainless steel and some alloy steels. He didn’t assess how many suffer brain damage.
His comment, in May 2015 came after OSHA had found that Imperial Industries in Wisconsin had ignored safety rules and regulations to prevent toxic exposure.
Little more than a year ago, in July 2014, OSHA found that welders at Omega Protein plant, who died as a result of a welding accident, didn’t realize the dangers of explosive toxic fumes. OSHA put the blame fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the employer who should have ensured that the environment was safe.
At the end of the day, the Occupational Safety and Health Act holds employers responsible for ensuring that workplaces are safe and healthy. Since hazardous welding fumes have been linked to brain damage, employers have a vital role in ensuring that steps are taken to ensure that welders are not exposed to welding fumes.