Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons And Poor Indoor Air Quality Threaten Workers In Various Industries
It’s always unsettling to learn that our day-to-day activities have consequences beyond intent. The warmth emitted from a wood-burning fireplace, a walk around the neighborhood, and a backyard cookout are all enjoyable events. And yet, these seemingly innocuous activities all create an environmental concern. Say hello to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
PAHs are a group of chemicals that contain more than 100 different compounds. (1) These natural substances are released into the air from a variety of actions such as the burning of organic substances like wood, gasoline, or charcoal-broiled meat. PAHs produced from these sources can create small airborne particulates or latch on to existing particles, creating air quality contaminants.
But PHAs are also a natural part of the environment. Most people have been in contact with one or more sources of PHAs over the course of their lifetimes, in some cases, routinely. The National Institutes Of Health summarizes the constant presence of PHAs:
PHAs are released from burning coal, oil, gasoline, trash, tobacco, wood, or other organic substances such as charcoal-broiled meat. They can occur naturally when they are released from forest fires and volcanoes and can [also] be manufactured. Other activities that release PAHs include driving, agricultural burning, roofing, or working with coal tar products, sound- and water-proofing, coating pipes, steelmaking, and paving with asphalt. PAHs are found in the asphalt that covers roads and parking lots and in smoke and soot. They are also found in coal tar – coal tar products are used in medicines for skin diseases, such as psoriasis, and in insecticides, fungicides, and pesticides. Coal tar creosote is widely used for wood preservation. Coal tar and coal tar pitch are used for roofing, road paving, aluminum smelting, and production of coke, a coal residue used as fuel. (2)
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are basically everywhere.
The major route of exposure to PAHs for the general population is from breathing ambient air, eating food containing PAHs, smoking cigarettes, or inhaling smoke from open fireplaces. Charring meat or barbecuing food over charcoal, wood, or another type of fire greatly increases the concentration of PAHs. Soil also contains PAHs, primarily from airborne fallout. (3) But the greatest concern for exposure exists where most people spend the bulk of their time – at work.
Industries that use or produce tar or asphalt or participate in the burning of fossil fuels routinely emit PAHs, as do any trades that require a running engine (think: mechanics, street vendors). In addition, persons who work in smokehouses, foundries, or trash incineration centers are at risk. As are those involved with metalwork, wood preserving, or chemical production. PAHs are also used to make plastics, dyes, pesticides, and medicines. (2) The businesses affected are varied and numerous.
This widespread potential for occupational exposure is problematic. Unlike casual human exposure – fumes from a fireplace, car exhaust as you walk on the sidewalk, smoke from the occasional backyard cookout – occupational exposure is constant. When a substance is mass-released, as it is within an industrial plant or from a large manufacturing drum, it enters the atmosphere. While the release may not always lead to exposure, often it does.
After polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin, the body converts them into breakdown products and passes them out of the body. (1) But when exposure is constant, as in an indoor, occupational setting, the body cannot excrete them fast enough to rid the body of the toxins. Occupational exposure alone isn’t necessarily enough to cause serious problems. The amount of PAHs, the duration of exposure, as well as individual characteristics such as gender, age, health, lifestyle, etc…, are all factors that affect the degree to which a person is affected.
At this point, it is not clear whether or not PAHs cause short-term health effects, as the other compounds commonly found with PAHs may be the cause of short-term symptoms such as eye irritation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and confusion. But studies have determined that PAHs can – and do – cause long-term, harmful health consequences resulting from occupational exposure. Symptoms can include cataracts, kidney and liver damage, and jaundice. (4)
While the most severe health risk for PAH exposure is cancer, it more often results in non-carcinogenic effects, mainly concerning pulmonary, gastrointestinal, eye, and skin problems.
Reducing indoor occupational exposure comes by way of protective clothing and safe work practices. But most important is capturing the PAHs at the source, through extraction. For extra protection, an ambient backup system may be employed as a secondary source. Employers who wish to protect themselves and their employees don’t have far to look to find an easy solution.
At Air Systems Inc., we serve our customers by providing indoor air quality management solutions in addition to our stellar air cleaning products. Contact us today for a free air quality assessment with one of our skilled and experienced indoor environmental specialists.