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Lead on the Golden Gate Bridge… Still?


Lead Paint Fail on the Golden Gate Bridge, February 12, 2014

For me, as an expert and an advocate, it was no surprise finding lead-paint hazards on the Golden Gate Bridge in 2014. Lead paint for use on metal, non-residential structures—such as bridges—is still “not yet regulated”(!)

Visiting the Golden Gate the other day, I used my Niton XRF, and performed several tests—both on newly painted areas, and on older painted areas that either had become re-exposed or somehow missed being recently repainted.

It was great to see that many of the newly-painted areas tested negative for lead – not even a trace reading through the layers of paint!

However, all of the older areas tested positive – and a reading of 3,272 ppm (with just a short reading—with a margin of error of plus or minus 265—in this picture, because I could not easily continue to hold the XRF and my camera at the same time to get a longer reading) is still quite high. (see pic below)

For me this is particularly disturbing, as it confirms what I have suspected for years. It’s not the confirmation of hazardous amounts of lead in the paint that is disturbing (I expected that), but the confirmation of the fact that for the DECADES since 1937*, when the bridge was first erected and painted, as the bridge has been continually touched up and repainted (sandblasted, power-washed, sanded, torched or whatever methods they might have used or continue to use) toxic clouds of lead paint dust and debris must have been falling and settling below – on to the wildlife and human visitors to the beaches, forests and hiking trails of the Golden Gate National Recreation area  – directly below the bridge (not to mention the potential exposure to the hundreds (thousands?) of boaters that have passed directly under the bridge every day for all of those years as well).

Over the years, I distinctly remember seeing clouds billowing off the side of bridge as they worked on it. Clouds from sanding?  Clouds from power-washing?  I couldn’t tell you.  But I can tell you, that even with the very best containment methodologies (which they likely didn‘t have in place at all when they first began repainting the bridge) on large-scale jobs like that debris “gets out.”  And of course (even with the latest 2014 “technology”), even the best containment strategies are likely to be compromised—or even rendered completely ineffective—in a very high-wind environment (like under the Golden Gate Bridge!)

Given that we now know that even a trace amount of lead causes damage to living organisms, pondering the potential damage to the creatures and habitat below is unsettling.

[Having lived in Marin from 1990 through 2002, I can’t even begin to count how many times I  personally hiked or sailed or paddled in that exact spot – many of those years (from 1996 through 2002) with my infant (and then toddler) son Cole in tow (in a stroller, backpack or my kayak’s baby seat.]


Lead Paint Fail in “Test All” Mode, 3,272 parts per million lead…

*Construction spanned from 1933 to 1937 – and the bridge is – in fact – continually touched up each year [not re-painted end-to-end as many believe] by a “a revered and rugged group of of 13 ironworkers and 3 pusher ironworkers along with and 28 painters, 5 painter laborers, and a chief bridge painter.”

Thinking about this, I am also curious…how long has it been that Sherwin Williams has been the official paint of the Golden Gate Bridge?  I can’t seem to find that fact on their website (just that they are the official paint now.)

Given the recent high-profile California judgement against S.W. et al [for agressively selling, promoting/advertising lead paint for residential use for half a century as being allegedly “safe for children”—while all the while actually being more aware than anyone of it’s extreme toxicity], it would be interesting to learn the history of the brand(s) and maker(s) of paint used on the G.G. Bridge since it was first erected. [One of the main pitfalls with the lead-paint poisoning lawsuits is that the lead paint and pigment manufacturers claim that they cannot be held liable for poisoning any specific child because “there is no confirmed record of which company’s paint was used on which house” – therefore “the paint or pigment company responsible for poisoning a specific child cannot be determined”.]

In the case of the Bridge, the paint company or brand that provided the initial lead-paint for the Golden Gate Bridge is likely easily identifiable and therefore could (in theory) be held responsible for covering the cost of the clean up and restoration of environmentally compromised (lead-paint-debris contaminated) portions of the Golden Gate National Recreation area just below the bridge, or held responsible for the potential health impacts to people who regularly used the Golden Gate National Recreation area (especially during the earlier decades when paint prep and removal technology was less specific and was likely being done without proper containment and removal techniques.)

This trip to San Francisco I did not have quite enough time to go hike my old favorite trails below the bridge (from when I lived in Marin in the 1990s), however next time I am in Marin I promise to walk those trails—fully charged XRF in hand—and test the soil along the way. I will to post results here then. [And please understand – I am fine—and obviously would prefer—being wrong about these things, and hope to not find any paint hazards in the soil on that hike!]

Another “side-question”….

Why, if the “lead-paint removal program” on the bridge lasted from 1965 through to 1995, am I still finding hazardous levels of lead in the paint today in 2014?  And are workers in that “rugged group” taking precautions against lead-paint exposures still?  Or do they assume (incorrectly apparently) that they are no longer being exposed during their repainting duties because of the three-decades long clean-up campaign that ended in 1995? Have they had their blood tested recently? Are they using the latest science to determine if a worker’s health has been compromised – or the old standards—which don’t consider a worker “poisoned” until they have a blood lead level of 20 or 25?

Tamara Rubin
Executive Director
Lead Safe America

A screenshot today – 2/14/2014 – from the Golden Gate Bridge’s website.

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 12.09.01 PM


4 Responses to Lead on the Golden Gate Bridge… Still?

  1. brettmm February 14, 2014 at 9:41 pm #

    Hey you guys out in California, the lead paint on the golden gate bridge is the LEAST of your worries. Trade in your XRF for a couple dozen Geiger counters. The worst to come from FUKUSHIMA is yet to unfold. The technology to clean up this mess has not even been invented yet, and will take 40 years at least to even start to clean up this mess.

    levels on the beach in san fran are 150 to 200 and in tahoe levels are 150 an average level is 6 to 10 in regular soil areas, and 10 to 15 in rocky areas. I would move out of California ASAP before real estate levels tumble when people finally take their blinders off from the US media blackout on this news. It is only going to go up as the prevailing winds bring more cesium radiation to your childs lungs you are concerned about. It takes only a dime sized particulate of cesium 137 to permanently radiate to an inhabitable level a 2 square mile area for millions of years. This is no joke. Look into it on your own when you have time.

    • Tamara February 25, 2014 at 5:56 pm #

      Thank you for your comment Smitty! I am definitely also concerned about radiation issues, as an activist and as a parent. I have exchanged emails with Helen Caldicott and we have discussed working on a collaborative article comparing the two considerations (lead and radiation) as there are so many parallels to the issues. I will post a link here when I have it. Her research and advocacy work is amazing and she is a good one to follow on this issue if you are not already. Of course, we are a lead-centric nonprofit and our message is lead-centric, in spite of many other environmental concerns that will likely have significant impacts on our future.

  2. george February 15, 2014 at 8:45 pm #

    Lead paint ain’t no worse than what the drugs are from the pharmacy. Do ur own research

    • Tamara April 18, 2014 at 8:43 pm #

      I just “love” comments like this! They are emblematic of what we are up against on this issue.

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