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NORA Manufacturing Sector Strategic Goals

927ZGFN - Survey of Chemical Exposure in the Biodiesel Industry

Start Date: 10/1/2008
End Date: 9/30/2009

Principal Investigator (PI)
Name: Brandon Law
Phone: 304-285-6373
Organization: NIOSH
Sub-Unit: HELD
Funded By: NIOSH

Primary Goal Addressed

Secondary Goal Addressed


Attributed to Manufacturing


Project Description

Short Summary

Occupational health hazards will be assessed in the emerging industry of biodiesel production. Potential health hazards in terms of exposure to methanol, sodium hydroxide and soy allergens have been identified via literature searches. Surface and air sampling for methanol, sodium hydroxide and soy allergen in several biodiesel production facilities are being proposed. Sources of personnel exposure in the biodiesel production process will be identified and quantified. Results and recommendations from this assessment will be reported to each biodiesel production facility studied, and we will disseminate the overall findings through trade and/or peer-reviewed publications.


There are presently 171 commercial biodiesel plants in the US with a total annual production capacity of 2.24 billion gallons. Demand for biodiesel has risen from 25 million gallons in 2004 to an estimated 450 million gallons in 2007. In addition to the larger commercial producers there are multiple small back-yard producers and universities that have small scale biodiesel reactors. The hazards of methanol and sodium hydroxide are well recognized, but there are no reported studies of the occupational exposure levels found in this industry. The production process is fairly simple. Feed stock, methanol and sodium hydroxide are added to a reactor where the oils are extracted and methyoxylated to form biodiesel. Methanol is trapped in a condenser and reused.

We propose to;

1. Contact the National Biodiesel Board and other stakeholders to partner and help enroll appropriate biodiesel production facilities in the exposure assessment study. Following identification of sites willing to participate an initial walk-through will be conducted of each facility and plant-specific environmental sampling strategies developed.

2. Return to each facility and sample for methanol, sodium hydroxide, soy protein and endotoxin in air and surfaces/settled dusts.

3. This project will be limited to environmental assessment. Potential for a follow-up study that includes survey of the workers health, anti-soy antibody levels in the workers' sera, and measures of pre and post shift methanol/formaldehyde levels in the workers' breath and urines may be considered if potential hazardous exposures are documented.

4. Results and recommendations from each assessment will be reported to each respective biodiesel production facility. We hope to disseminate overall findings through trade and professional publications.


The ultimate goal of occupational safety and health should be the identification of hazards while an industry is developing. Occupational health hazards will be assessed by surface and air sampling for methanol, sodium hydroxide, and soy allergens in several biodiesel production facilities. Engineering control of any hazards identified could be implemented early before hazards result in health problems and worker injury.

The objectives of this project are:

• Study the biodiesel production process to determine where problems may exist.

• Use environmental monitoring to identify sources of exposure.

• Use developed methods to study possible allergen exposures from feedstock.

• Disseminate findings

The outputs and impact of this project will be assessed by:

• Presentations at national meetings.

• Peer reviewed publications

• Report of the overall finding in trade publications

Mission Relevance

Biodiesel production plants are increasing exponentially in the United States. Potential occupational health hazards include exposure to methanol, lye and allergenic components from feedstock such as soy. Exposure levels to these agents in this relatively young industry have not been measured. Assessment of the occupational environment during the infancy stage of the biodiesel industry has the potential to provide crucial information for plant owners/operators that will aid in the prevention of exposure of plant workers to hazardous agents within the industry.

Results will potentially address:


Manufacturing (100%) Strategic Goal 5 (09PPMNFSG5): Reduce the number of respiratory conditions and diseases due to exposures in the manufacturing sector.

Cross Sector:

Immune/Derm Cross Sector (50%) Strategic Goal 1 (09PPIMUSG1): Intermediate Goal 1.1 (09PPIMUIG1.1) and Activity/output goals (09PPIMUAOG1.1.1) detection of occupational allergens, and (09PPIMUAOG1.1.2) expansion of database.

Respiratory Disease Cross Sector (50%) Strategic Goal 1 (09PPRDRSG1):

Prevent and reduce work-related airways diseases, Intermediate Goal (09PPRDRIG1.1) particularly Activity/Output Goals (09PPRDRAOG1.1.3) improved tools for detection of allergens, and (09PPRDRAOG1.1.4) identify emerging causes of WRA.

Other cross-sectors:

Exposure Assessment Strategic goal 2 (09PPEXASG2): Intermediate Goal 2.11 (09PPEXASG2.11) address critical exposure assessment needs in emerging areas such as nanotechnology for application of new approaches to both new and traditional industrial processes, and for emerging initiatives to substitute alternative (e.g., ostensibly more safe) chemical processes in areas where hazards have been identified.