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New study looks at chemical exposure in healthcare workers

Results show exposure level varies by task, product, occupation

Posted January 23, 2019

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) states that in work-related asthma, symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath occur from exposure to substances used in the workplace. To better understand chemical exposure in a healthcare setting, NIOSH investigators visited four hospitals and measured air levels of 14 chemicals commonly present in cleaners and disinfectants. These chemicals — known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — evaporate at room temperature, becoming airborne, and may potentially cause or worsen work-related asthma if breathed in.

Investigators took 143 pairs of air samples; each pair included one sample from participants’ personal breathing zone and one from areas where they performed various cleaning and disinfecting tasks. Results showed that healthcare workers faced exposure to numerous chemicals, which varied by task, product, and occupation. Nursing assistants, clinical laboratory technicians, and licensed practical nurses had higher personal exposures to more than half of the chemicals measured compared to other occupations.

Investigators plan to use the study’s findings to link actual symptoms of work-related asthma to specific exposures, tasks, and cleaning and disinfecting products.

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