Breathing paper dust is harmful to health: how to protect oneself

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Health and Safety at the workplace has always been an issue touching practically all work sectors and the health of workers. Growing attention to these issues has extended occupational health and safety research and studies to areas previously not taken into consideration, such as the production and management of paper. The question is, therefore, whether exposure to paper dust causes health problems and, if so, to what extent.

Lung damage from paper dust exposure

In scientific terms the word “dust” does not have a specific definition: in practice, dust is tiny, dry particles in the air and can be produced when materials are cut, drilled, demolished, sanded, shovelled, and so on.

Breathing large quantities of dust can often cause damage to the lungs, the seriousness of which may also depend on:

  • Particle size;
  • Nature of particles.

The size of dust particles is important when determining the dangers of exposure to dust. As a rule, the smaller the particle size, the more dangerous the dust type will be. This is the case of so-called fine dust particles, which, once inhaled, become embedded in the lungs and are very difficult to expel.

The second aspect concerns the nature of the particles – dust can be divided into two broad categories: toxic and irritant. Toxic dust derives from the treatment of materials harmful to human health, such as mercury, lead or chromium. Once inhaled, these particles can damage the lungs and, upon entering the bloodstream, other organs as well.

Toxic dust is usually fine, but certain substances such as asbestos produce larger dust particles or fibres that can be equally harmful to health.

Dusts which cause irritation to the lungs are usually generated from the following substances:

  • bitumen;
  • flour;
  • grain;
  • tobacco;
  • concrete;
  • sugar;
  • sawdust;
  • coffee;
  • tea;
  • paper.

These types of dust usually have only irritant effects on the lungs and the respiratory tract, but if inhaled in concentrated amounts they can have harmful consequences for human health.

Paper dust: risk sectors and protective solutions

Speaking of the inhalation of paper dust in particular, the workplaces where the risk of exposure to these dust particles is highest are those in the paper industry, where rubbing and the subsequent paper making processes produce tiny fibre particles.

Among the various types of paper, recycled paper usually generates more dust compared to other types, owing to the smaller size of the fibres. Paper dust may also be generated, even if to a lesser extent, during the storage stages of the material, as well as in post offices or in the sorting and storage areas of stationery.

Research carried out among the employees of paper manufacturing companies have identified the threshold of 5 mg per cubic meter as an important threshold: below 5 mg / mc the inhalation of paper dust causes irritation in the upper airways (nose, mouth, throat) while concentrations higher than 5 mg / mc give rise to irritations and disorders in the lungs.

As far as prevention is concerned, it is not always possible or feasible to eliminate the quantity of dust generated during the paper manufacturing process so engineering controls need to be put into practice to reduce the occupational risks, as follows:

  • reduce the exposure time to dust to a minimum;
  • provide workers with respiratory protective equipment ;
  • provide frequent and periodic medical evaluations for workers exposed to dust;
  • remove workers from source of dust exposure at first symptoms of respiratory irritation.