Taking Action Against a Carcinogen

New real-time monitoring equipment makes it easier to measure and possibly regulate diesel particulate matter.

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With its action to reclassify diesel exhaust as a known carcinogen, the World Health Organization has brought renewed interest to the subject of diesel particulate matter (DPM) and worker safety. Previously listed as a probable carcinogen since 1988, WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) changed the classification in June 2012.

"Governments and other decision-makers have a valuable evidence-base on which to consider environmental standards for diesel exhaust emissions," the agency said in announcing the move. IARC Director Dr. Christopher Wild added, "Today's conclusion sends a strong signal that public health action is warranted."

Exposure to DPM is only regulated in mining in the United States, Canada and several other countries. Larry Takiff, co-founder and president of Akita Innovations says despite the lack of regulations outside of mines, the health risk is still present. "It's probably a lower risk, but the risk is still there in other types of workplaces where diesel equipment is used, especially in confined or semi-confined spaces."

Takiff was with ICx Technologies when it developed the first commercially available, wearable monitor that provides accurate, real-time measurement of DPM exposure. The Airtec Diesel Particulate Monitor is now sold by FLIR Systems, which acquired ICx in 2010. Takiff's company works with FLIR in the sale and development of diesel monitoring technology.

"The more people learn about it, the more they realize it's a very hazardous material that can cause cancer and other acute and chronic health problems," says Takiff. Neither OSHA nor the EPA regulates exposure to DPM, though the EPA does regulate emissions from diesel engines.

Previously, the only accurate method for measuring DPM levels was a laboratory test (NIOSH 5040) which requires about three weeks of lab analysis. It generates a single number for the entire test period, and does not let the operator know exactly when and where high levels of DPM are detected. Test subjects could determine whether they were in compliance with regulations, but could not prevent exposure.

The Airtec is the first instrument usable in these environments to provide real-time exposure monitoring. DPM levels are displayed on a screen and recorded for later analysis. There is also an alarm to provide an immediate warning of high levels of diesel particulates. The much lower cost and ease of measuring DPM levels with Airtec as opposed to the NIOSH 5040 method facilitates using the device, and the real-time output allows immediate changes to keep worker exposure to allowed limits.

The Airtec was developed by ICx Technologies under license from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after the basic technology was developed by government scientists led by Dr. James Noll at the Pittsburgh Research Laboratory of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. About the size of a large paperback book, the unit weighs just 1.5 pounds and can be worn by workers or placed in locations that are being monitored. It was introduced commercially in March 2011.

NIOSH has tested the Airtec and determined that it gives the same results as the established NIOSH 5040 method without the delay and at a much lower cost. The ability to get instant results could lead to better DPM regulations.

"One of the reasons it's been difficult to regulate DPM exposure is that before the Airtec, it was just very difficult to measure accurately and there was no way to measure it in real time," says Takiff. "Eventually, regulations will be implemented to take advantage of better air monitoring technologies like the Airtec. How quickly regulations will change is an open question."


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