Ten facts about dust and why it's having a major impact on health
It may seem harmless, but dust, or 'airborne particles', are common air pollutants which, depending on their source and composition, can have a major impact on health, explains NUIG Exposure Science Lecturer, Dr Marie Coggins
1 Dust is generated in many ways
From the natural erosion of soil or rock, the release of plant pollen, or spores from vegetation or microscopic organisms, from human activities such as house-keeping, gardening, car exhaust emissions or work activities associated with large scale building or construction work.
2 Dust particles travel through the air as tiny solid particles
The dust particles are invisible to the naked eye.
"Airborne dust is ubiquitous in our environment. Any time we move, or perform an operation or action at work or at home, we generate hundreds, maybe thousands, of dust particles," says Dr Marie Coggins. "In the workplace, certain activities such as grinding, crushing and tunnelling, will generate clouds of dust particles, and in some cases, depending on the materials that you are using, some of these dusts can contain hazardous materials which, if you inhale, can lead to the development of a variety of acute or chronic diseases."
3 the smaller it is, the longer it goes
The smaller the particle, the longer it stays airborne and the further it can travel from its source. Large dust particles fall out of the air relatively close to where they are created, such particles form the dust layers one might see on things like furniture. When we inhale, larger particles tend to get deposited in our nose and mouth.
The smaller or finer particles, which are invisible, are more likely to penetrate deep into our lungs. Some are then exhaled when we breath out, but others are deposited or absorbed directly into the blood stream.
4 Exposure can harm you
Dust can have both short-term and long-term health effects. Short-term effects include irritation of the eyes, a burning sensation in the throat, coughing or sneezing. For those with existing respiratory conditions like emphysema, chronic obstructive airways disease (COPD) or asthma, even small increases in one's exposure to certain dusts can worsen symptoms.
5 It can cause respiratory problems
Long-term or chronic exposure to high concentrations of dust is thought to reduce lung function and contribute to the likelihood of suffering from respiratory and heart disorders.
6 Greater risks for babies and the elderly
Those living with existing respiratory and heart conditions are at a greater risk, while babies and elderly people are more likely to develop long-term issues from exposure to high concentrations of dust.
7 Occupational hazard
In many workplaces, but particularly the construction industry, dust can be a major occupational hazard. Crystalline silica is a basic component of soil, sand, granite and many other rock types. Work activities involving the cutting, grinding, blasting or tunnelling of such materials can create large clouds of silica dust.
Breathing crystalline silica-containing dust can cause numerous health problems - crystalline silica has been classified as a human lung carcinogen and exposure to silica dust can lead to the development of lung cancer and silicosis, which in severe cases can be fatal.
"Silica is widely found in nature, pretty much all types of rock, sand, gravel, and clays contain silica. However, some substances contain much more than others. Sandstone for example, can contain up to 90pc silica; concrete and rubble, depending on the aggregate from which it was made, can contain varying amounts of silica," says Dr Coggins. "In the construction industry, where work often involves the grinding or cutting of these materials, one would expect to find dusts containing high levels of silica. If we don't use the correct exposure controls during such work activities, then a significant exposure can occur.
"The presence of silica-containing dusts are not exclusive to activities in the construction sector: silica can also be present in dusts generated during demolition work at home, in work activities associated with the pottery and ceramic industries, and in the equestrian sector - for example, when lunging horses or grading the surface of an indoor arena, which has a surface that contains silica.
8 Awareness is key
"Any dusty activity contains a certain amount of risk with regard to silica and you need to make sure you have risk-assessed the work and identified the proper controls to mitigate the risk before commencing," says Dr Coggins. "It is not possible to see the dusts at the concentrations which cause harm."
9 Lung damage
Inhaling dust containing even a small amount of silica can lead to lung damage.
"The disease that is mostly commonly associated with silica dust is silicosis and it is actually one of the oldest occupational diseases - as far back as the 18th century, this respiratory disease was associated with work involving stone, and unfortunately, it is still around today," Dr Coggins explains.
10 harmful substances
Dust can contain many harmful substances and chemicals you may not be aware of. NUIG is carrying out an EPA-funded research project, known as ELEVATE.
"In ELEVATE, we will measure chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in indoor air and floor dust samples collected from common microenvironments, such as homes, cars, offices and schools," Dr Coggins explains.
"Some of the chemicals of interest to ELEVATE were used as flame retardants in the past, but their use is now banned under the UNEP Stockholm Convention.
The exposure information we are collecting in ELEVATE will help us understand how we get exposed to these chemicals, and the most important exposure pathways. Some flame retardants were used in the production of building insulation foams and electrical equipment, and over time, some of these chemicals are released into household dust. One simple way of reducing our exposure is to regularly clean surfaces."
■ Construction Safety Week takes place this week until October 27. For more information, please visit cif.ie/safety-week or follow the Construction Safety Week campaign on social media #CIFsafety17
Health & Living