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Gallatin County health officials said Wednesday that elevated levels of lead have affected at least 22 people, most of whom work or have worked at USA Brass Co. in Bozeman.

USA Brass cleans and resells used ammunition casings at its 25 Evergreen Drive shop.

More than six months ago, the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Health and Safety Administration found 10 serious violations, including failing to provide employees with adequate protective clothing and equipment, failing to prohibit food and beverages in areas with lead and lack of employee hazard training.

For the violations found there in September, OSHA could fine USA Brass up to $45,500 for failing to protect its employees from lead exposure.

The company has been in compliance with the federal agency’s requirements for several months, USA Brass CEO Zach Flanagan said in September. Both he and OSHA spokesman Jose Carnevali said at the time there were no reports of employee lead exposure.

However, local health care providers have reported at least 22 people with elevated levels of lead in their blood – a risk factor for several health problems, a statement from the Gallatin City-County Health Department said.

Contact occurs when workers are exposed to air containing lead particles or dust. Workers can then expose family members when they bring lead dust home or deposit it in their cars off their work clothes or equipment, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Workers can protect those they live with by showering and changing clothes before leaving work and bagging their work clothes before bringing them home for cleaning.

Lead poisoning can be hard to detect because even seemingly healthy people can have high levels of lead in their blood. Signs and symptoms don’t typically appear until dangerous amounts of lead have accumulated in the body. And because vague symptoms are sometimes mistaken for stomach upset or flu, lead poisoning may go undetected.

Exposure to low levels of lead can cause damage over time, particularly in children who can suffer irreversible brain development issues. Lead can also damage kidneys and the nervous system of both children and adults. Very high lead levels may cause seizures, unconsciousness and possibly death, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Pregnant women are also at high risk as lead can pass from a mother to her unborn baby. It can cause miscarriages or premature births, damage a baby’s brain, kidneys or nervous system. Children exposed to lead before birth can also experience learning or behavior problems.

A person exposed to high levels of lead over a short period of time can develop lead poisoning with symptoms that include abdominal pain, constipation, fatigue and weakness, headache, appetite loss, memory loss or pain or tingling in hands or feet.

Local health authorities are working with USA Brass management to educate those affected and people who live with them.

“We recommend that those who are concerned about possible exposure discuss the issue with their health care provider,” said Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley. “A simple blood test can help determine whether someone has been exposed to lead and if they require additional treatment.”

People concerned about lead exposure should contact their health care provider or contact Montana Occupational Health at 556-1900 or Community Health Partners at 585-1360 in Bozeman or 922-0820 in Belgrade.

Additional information about lead exposure can be found at the following websites:

* U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: cdc.gov/niosh/topics/lead/workerInfo.html

* U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: epa.gov/lead

* U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp.asp?id=96&tid=22

Jodi Hausen can be reached at jhausen@dailychronicle.com or 582-2630. Follow her on Twitter @JodiHausen or on Facebook at Jodi Hausen, journalist.

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