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Importance of Proper Protective Clothing During Cleanup of a Hazardous-Waste Site -- Pennsylvania

The unauthorized dumping of hazardous-waste materials at various locations throughout the country has resulted in toxic exposures in the surrounding areas. On October 11, 1983, three workers employed to clean up a hazardous-waste dump site in Pennsylvania complained of dizziness, nausea, and headaches. One of the workers was hospitalized for observation and was later released. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requested an investigation by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) (1).

This site contained approximately 650 55-gallon drums that had been dumped without authorization at a former municipal landfill in the state. At the time of cleanup, most drums were crushed, perforated, riddled with bullet holes, and in various stages of decay. The cleanup involved removing these drums to an area where their contents could be tested for further disposal.

During the cleanup operation, each worker wore borrowed polyvinyl chloride (PVC) clothing and a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) for protection. All three workers noticed a "sweet" smell as they worked. The SCBAs were new, and in a thorough evaluation after the incident, each was found to be functioning properly.

On October 12, analytical chemists from NIOSH evaluated several specimens from the outside of the protective clothing of the hospitalized worker. The primary contaminants were identified as methyl ethyl ketone, methyl isobutyl ketone (MIBK), toluene, and xylene. Swab samples from inside this worker's protective clothing showed the presence of MIBK. Based on these findings, NIOSH recommended that a less permeable type of protective clothing be used. The recommendation was implemented, and no further incidents were reported. Reported by Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; Hazard Evaluations and Technical Assistance Br, Div of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations, and Field Studies, Measurements Research Support Br, Div of Physical Sciences and Engineering, Injury Prevention Research Br, Div of Safety Research, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Such unauthorized dumping of hazardous-waste materials as reported here results in toxic exposures, not only to the surrounding community, but also to workers employed to clean up these sites. To protect workers at hazardous-waste sites, an extensive health and safety program is required that includes environmental monitoring, proper use of protective equipment, good work practices, selected engineering controls, and appropriate medical monitoring (2). As part of an interagency agreement with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, NIOSH evaluates occupational safety and health programs that have been implemented for selected hazardous-waste sites around the country. The cleanup personnel at the site discussed above were under contract with EPA.

Previous studies by NIOSH at hazardous-waste sites have documented only low-level air exposures to a variety of contaminants (3-4). These evaluations, however, did not assess high, short-term air and skin exposures from splashing.

During this cleanup all three workers were wearing PVC protective clothing that has been shown to be quite permeable to most organic solvents. Therefore, the repeated contact with the solvents present at this site probably led to their permeating the clothing and being absorbed through the skin. The symptoms (dizziness, nausea, headaches) these workers experienced are compatible with acute exposure to these solvents. Additionally, although the SCBAs used in the present incident were working properly, improper wearing or fitting of the devices may have resulted in leakage of air contaminants around the mask and into the workers' breathing zones.

References

  1. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Health hazard evaluation report no. HETA 84-010-1445. Cincinnati, Ohio: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 1984.

  2. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Occupational safety and health guidance manual for hazardous waste site activities. Cincinnati, Ohio: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 1985. (HHS (NIOSH) publication no. 85-115.)

  3. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Health hazard evaluation report no. HETA 83-417-1357. Cincinnati, Ohio: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 1983.

  4. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Health hazard evaluation report no. HETA 80-077-853. Cincinnati, Ohio: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 1981.



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