Dust and nanoparticles: how to protect oneself?

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The workplace is often characterized by hazards, i.e. the presence of harmful substances that can seriously compromise the health of workers. Among the main sources of danger are dust and nanoparticles, the most dangerous of which are the tiniest particles because, once inhaled, they are deposited in the respiratory system where they settle and cause considerable damage.

Types of irritating dust and high exposure risk workplaces

There are numerous types of irritating dusts and each type exposes workers to risks which are more or less serious. Among the various types of irritating dust, we find:

  • silica, a mineral that exposes mine, quarry, agriculture, construction, foundry and steel industry workers to considerable risks;
  • chromium, used in the welding, chemical and metalworking industries.

Workers who come into contact with substances such as barium, graphite, coal, and iron at the workplace are also at risk, as well as the ones involved with fabric manufacturing where workers are exposed to irritating dust deriving from the processing of cotton, linen and hemp. Risks are also present along the entire agri-food chain where workers are exposed to harmful substances from the fields through to the finished products. The environments where workers are exposed to risk do not end here because, even though asbestos has now been banned, it is still present in many products and buildings and when asbestos containing materials are disturbed or become damaged in time, asbestos fibres are released into the air and, if inhaled, can cause very serious health problems.

Pneumoconiosis: chronic lung disease caused by fine particles

Exposure to fine dust can lead to pneumoconiosis which is actually a group of diseases that affect the lungs and which are caused by the inhalation of organic and non-organic dust. These are subtle pathologies because they take a long time to develop and it can take up to 10 years from the time of exposure to the moment when the first symptoms actually appear. The most severe forms of pneumoconiosis are pulmonary granulomatosis and pulmonary fibrosis. The former is characterized by the presence of nodular proliferations, or cysts which are caused by the accumulation of toxic dust in the lungs and the resulting inflammation. In pulmonary fibrosis, on the other hand, there is actual scarring of the lung tissue around and between the air sacs (alveoli). Both diseases cause a lack of elasticity in the lung tissues which results in shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. Pneumoconiosis diseases are also classified according to the harmful or toxic substances to which one has been exposed: i.e. the disease caused by exposure to and inhalation of crystalline silica dust is called silicosis while the one caused by exposure to and inhalation of asbestos fibres is called asbestosis. Symptoms to watch out for, in addition to respiratory failure, are tachycardia, chronic bronchitis, pulmonary emphysema and lung sound. It must be emphasized that pneumoconiosis may degenerate in time into other diseases, such as tuberculosis, lung carcinoma, pulmonary hypertension. It is, therefore, essential to take all the necessary measures to prevent health problems.

What can be done to reduce risk?

People who work in hazardous environments and are exposed to harmful dust and nanoparticles are protected by national and international standards and regulations that focus on prevention and require the employer to provide employees with Respiratory Protective Devices that are applicable and suitable for the purpose intended when such equipment is necessary to protect the health of workers. A type of appropriate protection against fine dust and nanoparticles is the battery powered air purifying respirator which runs for an entire work shift.

These respirators are equipped with blower units and filters/cartridges to block pollutants and convey clean, filtered air to the inside of the facepiece. Furthermore, the devices are designed to eliminate the exhaled air and any excess air. Powered air purifying respirators need to be checked and serviced regularly in order to keep them efficient.