Formaldehyde exposure patterns in a set of Italian indoor workplaces with and without specific emission sources - 2011-2018
Formaldehyde is a ubiquitous carcinogen causing widespread exposures, both occupational and non- occupational.
In order to prevent both short-term and long-term adverse health effects (cancer included), different guideline values and limit values for indoor formaldehyde vapours concentration have been proposed.
There is a widespread debate about the existence of a threshold exposure value for the arising of carcinogenic effects of formaldehyde, impacting on the significance of the proposed limit values(health-based vs. risk-based).
Specific criticalities arise when specific emission sources are present inside a workplace and it is necessary to distinguish background from more significant exposure levels, establishing strategies for a proper management of the so-called â€œlowâ€ occupational exposures.
The aim of this paper sets not about the discussion about safe vs. not-safe exposure levels, but about the necessity to distinguish scenarios of background vs. significant (â€œqualifiedâ€) occupational indoor exposures to formaldehyde. Specific preventive and protective actions are requested in the latter case.
The paper presents the patterns of formaldehyde vapoursâ€™ concentration measured in a set of indoor Italian workplaces with and without specific emission sources, discusses a pragmatic cut-off value of 35 Î¼g m-3 for long exposures in order to identify significant (â€œqualifiedâ€) occupational exposures and proposes clues about the efficacy of distinct exposure management approaches.
Over the 2011 â€“ 2018 period, a sequence of 117 passive diffusive indoor samplings was performed: 26 samplings (all environmental) lasting 1 hour or longer in workplaces without specific sources of formaldehyde, 75 samplings (69 environmental, 6 personal) lasting 1 hour or longer in workplaces with specific sources of the agent, and 16 samplings (5 environmental, 11 personal) lasting less than 1 hour in workplaces with specific sources of the agent.
In the data analysis, the samplings were grouped according to duration, i.e. more than 1 hour (â€œlong samplingsâ€) and less than 1 hour (â€œshort samplingsâ€).
The mean formaldehyde levels determined from environmental long samplings in workplaces with and without specific emission sources (plastics moulding factories, foundries, abrasive disksmanufacturingplants, a womenâ€™s hairdressing salon, a surgical block where formalin was used for tissue fixation, a hospital Histopathology unit vs. an office, a medical practice, a waiting room, a reception hall, a sterilization room were no formaldehyde-based product was in use, and a conference hall) were 16.6Î¼g m-3 and 12.2 Î¼g m-3 respectively. Both groups of values are, as a whole, low and very close between them, clearly as a result of more or less effective industrial hygiene measures (enclosure of emission points, local exhausts aspiration, general ventilation) where specific sources are present.
However, personal long samplings in a subset of the aforesaid workplaces with occupational exposure to formaldehyde showed a mean value of exposure of 34.8 Î¼g m-3.
In general, personal samplings, both longer and shorter than one hour, showed formaldehyde levels higher than the corresponding environmental ones: twice higher in the above mentioned womenâ€™s hairdressing salon (43.1 Î¼g m-3 vs 21.9 Î¼g m-3), more than four times higher in three farms and a mortuary (the mean values from short and long samplings were found to be 512.3Î¼g m-3 and 122.2 Î¼g m-3 respectively).
These results highlight the need to pay attention to all aspects of the workersâ€™ activities involving any condition of close proximity to the emission sources which increase individual exposure.
A growing pattern of mean formaldehyde levels emerged, from 12.2Î¼g m-3 (long samplings, no specific sources) up to 512.3Î¼g m-3 (short samplings, presence of specific sources).
In the workplaces with no specific formaldehyde sources (all environmental long samplings), the level of 30 Î¼g m-3 was never exceeded, with the only exception (31 Î¼g m-3) of an office where the sampler had been located very close to a sporadically used laser printer.
Only a subset of long samplings taken in workplaces with specific formaldehyde sources showed levels exceeding 30 Î¼g m-3, up to 75 Î¼g m-3: these were strictly related to the inadequacy of emission point enclosures, to faulty local exhaust aspiration and to poor general ventilation.
Top values largely exceeding 100 Î¼g m-3 were observed in short samplings from the three above mentioned farms (where the problem was quickly worked out each time by replacing all formaldehyde-based products) and from the mortuary (a setting where the use of formaldehyde-free products for corpse preservation is not an established routine yet).
Theseresults support the feasibility of adopting conventional, pragmatic cut-off values for indoor formaldehyde levels, in order to conventionally distinguish between background and significant (â€œqualifiedâ€) occupational exposures in presence of specific emission sources of the agent.
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