SUPERIOR — Health officials say the majority of more than 200 workers who were tested for lead exposure at a shipyard in northwest Wisconsin had elevated levels of lead in their blood.
The Wisconsin and Minnesota health departments began a joint investigation last spring after workers at Fraser Shipyards in Superior were exposed to lead while retrofitting the Herbert C. Jackson, a ship originally built in 1959. The departments' findings were released in a report Friday.
About 73 percent of the 233 workers who were tested had blood lead poisoning, Wisconsin Department of Health Services chief medical officer Jon Mieman told Wisconsin Public Radio (http://www.wpr.org/node/1047711 ).
Mieman said it can be difficult to determine whether workers' blood-lead levels were the result of long-term or short-term exposure at the shipyard or prior places of employment.
"We can't say for sure, but we can say from what we know about the work environment, there was a clear connection between exposure to lead in a work environment and a significant group of workers that had elevated lead levels," he said.
The lead will naturally be removed from the body on its own as people are removed from the environment and proper workplace safety is established, Mieman said.
"There shouldn't be any long-term health effects from that," he said.
A spokesman for Fraser Shipyards declined to comment on the report's findings. Earlier this month, the company said it had agreed to pay $700,000 to settle a fine from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to improve worker safety. Fraser did not admit fault or liability related to the lead exposure.
Mieman said short-term effects may include anemia, headache and fatigue.
"At those levels that we saw ... they can vary quite a bit from person to person," he said.
Public health officials say blood lead poisoning means someone's blood has lead levels higher than five micrograms per deciliter.