Breathing in dust can result in a range of occupational illnesses and diseases depending on:
- size of dust particles
- composition of the dust particle and its effect on the body
- concentration of dust particles in the breathing zone of the worker
- how often and how long a person breathes in the dust.
Most dust clouds contain particles of widely varying sizes. Hazardous dust is not always visible.
The larger particles that can be breathed in are called inhalable or inspirable dust particles. Inhalable dust particles are visible to the naked eye and are deposited in the nose, throat and upper respiratory tract. Respirable dust contains dust particles so small they are invisible to the naked eye and reach deep into the lungs.
Different types of dust particles have different health effects. For example, respirable crystalline silica dust causes scarring of the lungs, and inhalable lead dust can damage the central nervous system. Many occupational diseases are the result of many years of exposure to dust and it may take years or decades before the disease becomes noticeable.
What types of dust are there?
Nano-materials: Many modern processes use nano-materials. These are particularly dangerous as they can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream through the skin and through the lung membranes if breathed in. They should be regarded as dangerous to health regardless of the material they are made of. Normal protective equipment will not provide adequate protection and you must contact your laboratory before opening or attempting to sample such products.
Toxic dusts: These are generally produced when working with substances which are themselves toxic e.g. chemicals containing lead, mercury, chromium or toxic organic substances such as fentanyl and its analogues. If inhaled, they could damage your lungs or get into your bloodstream and be distributed throughout your body. Fentanyles and other synthetic opioids can cause very rapid respiratory depression and sedation.
Nuisance dusts: These may be generated by handling materials such as:
- dried foodstuffs;
- coffee beans and tea;
- carbon black (as in photocopier/printer toner).
These types of dusts are generally only irritating, but in concentrated form they can be hazardous to health. Hardwood dust is carcinogenic.
In some areas you might come across cannabis dust during your work (e.g. in an official warehouse). This type of dust is not thought to be particularly dangerous, as it is not easily absorbed by the body and is generally in a low concentration.
Flammable dusts: Flammable dusts travel through the air in clouds and can easily be ignited, setting off a flash fire or explosion. They can be set alight by a spark or naked flame, or even by settling on a hot surface. When flammable dusts settle and are ignited, they can burst into flame or simply smoulder — long after the source of ignition has been removed. Following an explosion, flammable dusts can be spread over a wide area, increasing the risk of a serious fire.
It is highly unlikely that you will encounter any flammable dusts during your work.
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