Airborne contaminants can have a marked impact on staff health and can have a direct negative impact on research results. Traditional ventilation systems and fume cupboards used by laboratories are often insufficient in their performance and can be a source of contamination themselves. To effectively control airborne contamination, laboratories need to consider air purification systems that have been designed to effectively address the needs of laboratories today
As we all know the research environment can be a hazardous one. The variety of work carried out in laboratories and by researchers in hospitals can often produce airborne contamination, exposing staff to high levels of chemicals. In the past casual exposure to acids, mercury vapour and even benzene, a known carcinogen was quite common. Health and safety for researchers has improved considerably over recent years, however we cannot afford to be complacent, as the long-term health effects of many chemicals remain unknown.
The health implications of chemical exposure can range from an increased risk of cancer to short-term medical conditions such as respiratory problems, dizziness, fatigue, and headaches, resulting in more staff sick days and delays to research processes. The research itself can also be compromised through interaction with airborne contaminants, resulting in expensive restarts and unnecessary delays.
In the UK, employers are required to protect their staff in the workplace under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations of 2002. So far, 500 hazardous substances have a Workplace Exposure Limit (WEL), meaning there is a maximum air concentration level in place to protect employees. Nevertheless, anyone working in the field of science will know that there are many thousands of substances used in the research workplace for which we do not know nearly enough about their side effects.
Of the chemicals we already know about, solvents such as methanol, ethanol, toluene, and xylene pose a particular threat, being liquids with a low boiling point and a readiness to evaporate easily into the air. All four are classed as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and are potential health hazards if inhaled, but xylene, a colourless hydrocarbon – and chemically related to toluene and benzene – which is widely used in processing tissue for making microscope slides, is especially nasty. In the short term, exposure to xylene can affect the central nervous system, causing headaches and dizziness, and also the lungs, provoking shortness of breath and chest tightness. Long-term exposure can lead to ‘organic solvent syndrome’, the symptoms of which include depression, memory loss, impaired concentration and fatigue. Recent research has also linked xylene and toluene exposure in hospital laboratory workers to an increased incidence of Raynaud’s phenomenon, a painful condition involving the narrowing of the blood vessels in the hands and feet.
Aware of the dangers, but also to meet UK stipulations, laboratory facilities usually use high velocity air conditioning (HVAC) systems to protect their staff and research. However, traditional HVAC systems can often have a negative impact on indoor air quality by introducing additional contaminated air into the workspace. This happens either because the system is not equipped with appropriate filtration, or because the HVAC system does not provide the required amount of air exchanges to achieve the desired results. To resolve this, leading hospitals and research facilities are now adopting cost effective air filtration systems that are customisable to control almost any airborne pollution issue in their facilities.
These air cleaning solutions can remove more then 99.97% of particulate pollutants at 0.3 microns, and most chemical pollutants, such as VOCs, ozone (O3), formaldehyde (CH2O), chloroform (CHC11) and xylene. These air-cleaning solutions can be free standing, mounted to the wall or ceiling, or alternatively retrofitted into existing HVAC systems. In-flow and out-flow accessories can be used with the system to easily create overpressure and under pressure environments.
Anyone working in a laboratory today ought to be provided with in-depth health and safety training, be equipped with the right gloves, footwear, goggles or shields, and have thorough training in the proper use of chemical fume hoods. In addition, methods must now be deployed to remove harmful chemical and particle contaminants, which can have a direct influence on research results and researcher well-being.
With the battle to fight airborne contamination in the work place, professional environments can benefit greatly from achieving and maintaining high airborne hygiene standards, thereby protecting staff, patients and research alike. Installing effective air filtration systems to remove contamination in the air is the best way to achieve this.
The author: Dr Susan Aldridge
Susan consults for Allergy Cosmos; a company that provides advice on asthma, allergies and airborne contamination in the workplace, and promotes methods to achieve cleaner, healthier work environments