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workers, building, architect

NORA Manufacturing Sector Strategic Goals

927ZJFN - Potential Chemical Exposures in the Biodiesel Industry.

Start Date: 10/1/2009
End Date: 9/30/2012

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

Biodiesel production is growing exponentially in the United States. This study will assess the potential emerging health hazards due to the production of biodiesel by small producers through air sampling for methanol, sodium hydroxide and soy allergen in the field. Sources of exposure in the production process will be identified and quantified. The knowledge gained from this study will address specific NIOSH research goals for reducing respiratory disease, occupational skin disease and the development of exposure assessment tools in emerging areas where hazards have been identified. There are currently no reported studies on the associated occupational exposure levels to methanol and sodium hydroxide in small biodiesel production facilities. This project should result in peer reviewed journal articles which will provide scientific data needed to develop engineering controls to limit occupational exposures in this industry and will also provide educational materials to workers in the industry through trade and professional 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. The purpose of this project is to study the biodiesel production process at several sites to determine where health hazards may exist.

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. Engineering control of the hazards can be implemented early before hazards identify themselves through 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 of this project will be assessed by:

* Presentations at national meetings.

* Peer reviewed publications

* Report of the overall finding in trade publications

The methods that will be used to substantiate the impact of the information generated on exposures in the biodiesel industry will include routine Internet searches to ensure the information has been made public and continued publication and communication of new findings and results throughout the duration of the project.

Mission Relevance

Biodiesel production is increasing exponentially in the United States. Potential occupational health hazards include exposure to methanol, lye and allergenic components from feedstock such as soy. Assessment of the occupational environment during the infancy stage of the biodiesel industry has the potential to provide crucial information that will aid in the prevention of exposure to hazardous agents within the industry

Agents such as methanol and lye and their exposure effects are not new or unknown. The biodiesel industry uses large quantities of these agents during everyday operations. From literature searches it was clear that the controls being employed by the industry had not been evaluated. Through the use of basic industrial hygiene sampling a better understanding of the potential exposures can be achieved in this relatively young industry. The knowledge gained from this study will address specific NIOSH research goals for reducing respiratory disease, occupational skin disease and the development of exposure assessment tools in emerging areas where hazards have been identified. Evaluation of health and safety needs within the industry is important not only to the industry itself but also to those who further assess the industry.