Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm and Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) Commissioner Nancy Leppink took action Monday, Oct. 28 to cease operations related to the industrial production of lead products at Water Gremlin after children of employees were found to have elevated blood levels linked to lead dust unknowingly brought home.
DLI issued a temporary order following an on-site inspection on Saturday, Oct. 26.
Commissioners asked a Ramsey County District Court judge to issue an injunction extending this order until the court is satisfied that necessary steps have been taken and maintained to prevent the lead poisoning of workers’ children.
The agencies made a joint court filing after determining that efforts by Water Gremlin to control worker exposure to lead dust and worker lead dust contamination in the plant have not been successful.
St. Paul - Ramsey County Public Health investigators determined that at least 12 children of workers at Water Gremlin had elevated blood lead levels, including two children with blood lead levels above the level of 15 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL). Blood lead levels above this threshold are considered by health officials to constitute a particularly serious health risk for children.
While elevated blood lead levels in children are typically associated with in-home exposures to lead-based paint, investigators in these cases determined that the children’s elevated blood lead levels were linked to a separate issue called “take-home lead.” In the absence of appropriate industrial hygiene practices, lead dust can accumulate on workers’ bodies, clothing, shoes and personal items, and may be brought home unknowingly. Because lead dust is heavy, it can accumulate in homes and vehicles and is not easily removed. Family members living with the workers who bring lead dust home can ingest the lead dust, which can accumulate in their bodies.
St. Paul - Ramsey County Public Health had been working with Water Gremlin management to address the issue of take-home lead, but confirmation of a second child with a blood lead level above 15 mcg/dL this month indicated that the company’s efforts were insufficient. As a result, St. Paul - Ramsey County Public Health asked MDH and DLI for assistance.
“Confirmation of a second case of childhood lead poisoning made it clear that practices at the plant were not sufficient to reduce the risk,” Commissioner Malcolm said. “Lead is a serious health concern, especially for children. We needed to act quickly to protect the workers and their families.”
The on-site inspection last Saturday found conditions and practices related to worker lead exposure and contamination that were cause for concern for the health of Water Gremlin workers and their families. Leppink’s authority to order Water Gremlin to cease operations at its plant expires after 72 hours, so she asked the court to extend the temporary order to allow time for the agency to ensure that Water Gremlin implements and sustains adequate remediation actions.
As health commissioner, Malcolm has independent statutory authority to ask the court to enjoin activities that are adverse to public health and asked the court to continue the shutdown ‑ again so that steps can be taken to protect workers and families’ health.
MDH and St. Paul - Ramsey County Public Health are working with the employees and their families to ensure all at-risk workers and family members are tested, and that contaminated houses and vehicles are cleaned.
In addition, the agencies are working with Ramsey County and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to help workers during the disruption in facility operations. Those efforts include providing employees with information on what is happening with the plant, where to get help with employment as needed, and where to get more information about lead and health impacts.