What is Camphor
When the reds, greens, blues, and gold of an elaborate fireworks display lights up the sky, it is usually awe and gratitude that fill us. But for those on the ground, lighting those explosives, they are being filled with something not so inspiring: camphor fumes.
Native to Asian countries such as China and Japan, camphor is derived from the camphor laurel, an evergreen tree with many branches, white flowers, and red berries. At maturity, the camphor tree is enormous – between 80-120 feet tall, with a trunk that reaches 6 feet in diameter. To isolate the benefits, the substance is extracted from the tree, and then distilled. In it’s natural state, camphor is colorless or waxy white, with a strong characteristic odor. (1)
Camphor, a prized botanical, has been used in China and India for centuries as a medicinal curative. In the US, camphor is valued for its properties as a cough suppressant and decongestant, antimicrobial substance and a natural insect repellent. In addition, camphor is used as a topical liniment, medicinal and cosmetic preservative, plasticizer and embalming fluid. It is also an ingredient in explosives, including fireworks. (2)
Back in the late 1800s, as Western manufacturers produced more firepower and munitions, US military commanders looked for ways to reduce battlefield smoke that obscured the vision of their fighting troops. Camphor, that cloudy, stinky substance at the base of vapor rubs, saved the day – and countless lives — by contributing to the creation of a smokeless gunpowder.
With all these beneficial qualities, it might seem surprising that there are significant health risks for those who manufacture it.
The Camphor Producing Industry is No Stranger to Indoor Air Quality Issues
The CDC warns that camphor dust and fumes have multiple routes of exposure: inhalation, ingestion, absorption, and skin/eye contact. Various stages of production, such as the distilling process, can inadvertently expose workers to vapors or particulates. Even during manufacturing of the synthetic product, significant ill effects are still an occupational risk.
Short-term (acute) exposure will occur at the point of contact and should dissipate when exposure desists. On-site symptoms can begin with signs such as nausea and vomiting or eye and skin irritation. However, for heavy doses of toxic contamination, symptoms can quickly turn to severe, even dire. Convulsions, seizures, and respiratory failure can potentially result in death.
The signs of long-term (chronic) exposure, on the other hand, are often more difficult to recognize. Subtle allergic reactions and eye discomfort could be assumed to be from allergens because a person can exhibit ill health effects, even when they are no longer working. So, too, can other symptoms be overlooked. Nausea, anxiety, headache, and confusion may not be considered side effects of occupational exposure. If the victim is not at work at the time signs become obvious. (4)
Further troubling is the fact that camphor dust is combustible and contains explosive properties. (3) If not controlled properly, disaster can strike. Thankfully, probability of fire, explosion, and occupational exposure to toxic concentrations of camphor is low, if proper precautions are taken.
Most manufacturing plants, including those that generate camphor-related products, already employ safe work measures in the form of protective clothing and engineering controls. But it can prove prudent to employ an extra line of defense. The installation of source capture equipment and/or ambient air-cleaning systems is one more way to combat indoor air pollution.
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 clean air specialists.