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Electrician Who Loved to Chew Plastic Wire Coating Gets Lead Poisoning

July 6, 1993

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) _ The mystery of an electrician’s lead poisoning was solved when he revealed he liked to chew the plastic coating stripped from wires.

″It’s just a nervous habit, like chewing gum or something. It’s common among electricians,″ said Elmer Galbraith, 48, who lives near Johnstown.

His case was unusual enough to be documented in the June 25 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that details emerging health problems.

A routine job-related blood test in 1991 determined the electrician with nearly two decades in the trade had a lead level more than 10 times normal.

The usual sources - lead paint or lead in water pipes - were ruled out. Galbraith’s wife and child both tested normal.

Galbraith, bothered by tingling in his fingers, had mild memory loss and diminished mathematics skills. After answering a long list of questions about his personal habits, he mentioned his frequent chewing of the plastic coating.

″They told me to bring in a sample and when they tested it, it drove the meter off the scale,″ he said in a recent interview.

Doctors treated Galbraith with an agent that carries most of the lead out of the body in urine, said Michael Kelley, a medical toxicologist.

The finger tingling is gone, but he hasn’t regained his math skills. He quit chewing the plastic and urges other electricians to do the same.

The coating contained the lead, not the wire, which was copper. The lead comes mainly from the pigments used to color the plastic, as well as from the manufacture of all such plastic.

The CDC report said doctors have known these coatings contained lead, but they’d never found anybody who chewed them before. As soon as they told Galbraith to stop, his lead levels dropped.

The report emphasized that the case was uncommon, but said, ″Nonetheless ... workers should be warned of the potential hazard of chewing plastic coatings or other plastic products that may contain lead.″

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