Workplace toxins that are inadvertently tracked by employees into their homes serve “as an intriguing example of how occupational conditions can have broader public health consequences,” according to scientists who’ve studied the problem.

In Eliminating Take-Home Exposures: Recognizing the Role of Occupational Health and Safety in Broader Community Health, a study published in the Annals of Work Exposures and Health, researchers reframe the problem as one arising from unsanitary worker behavior – the current thinking – to a larger issue that needs to be viewed through an ecosocial lens in order to institute effective prevention and address persistent health disparities among workers, their families, and communities.

According to the study’s authors, “Including the role of work in community health will increase the comprehensiveness of prevention efforts for contaminants such as lead and pesticides that contribute to environmental disparities.”

The study notes that most research into take-home contaminants has focused on the behavior of workers and their family members, without explicitly considering the larger social structures and power relationships that influence this behavior.

“Understanding take-home exposures through an ecosocial lens (Krieger, 2010) may help explain their complex origin as a product of behavior by multiple factors in the workplace and at home. Thus, the take-home exposure pathway may contribute to known health disparities in marginalized populations that are reliant on precarious labor.”

The study reviews take-home exposures, which began to be studied in earnest in the 1970s when  environmental health experts noticed cases of heavy metal poisonings, malignant mesotheliomas and impaired lung function in the family members of industrial workers that had been exposed to lead dust or asbestos. The workers’ homes were found to be contaminated with asbestos.

In parallel findings, homeowners with high lead levels in their workplace had generally higher lead dust levels in their homes.

Children in the affected homes were, in some instances, more affected by contaminants than the adults.

In addition to investigating the history of take-home contaminants and how they have been studied, and arguing that an ecosocial view of the problem is essential for effective prevention, the study’s authors summarize key structural vulnerabilities that lead populations to be at risk, and discuss future research and prevention effort needs – especially given the ongoing changes in the worker populations and the nature of work itself.

Click here to read Eliminating Take-Home Exposures: Recognizing the Role of Occupational Health and Safety in Broader Community Health.

Authors: Andrew Kalweit, Robert F Herrick, Michael A Flynn, John D Spengler, J Kofi Berko, Jr, Jonathan I Levy, Diana M Ceballos