Just Test the Air

Caller: "Hello, we want to have our air tested."

High EH&S: "Okay.  What do you want tested?"

Caller: "The air."

High EH&S: "Right, but what would you like us to test for?"

Caller: "Everything.  We have people who are getting sick at work and want to be sure that the air is safe."

This is a typical call that we receive from individuals concerned about an exposure in their facility.  The problem is that we can't test for everything.  And if we did test for everything, the cost would be astronomical.  Of course we are happy to have projects like this, but it really doesn't make sense for our clients to test for everything.  It would be like going to the doctor because you don't feel well and asking for every possible medical test available.  Crazy expensive -- right?

The converse of this call is someone who believes that they have had the air tested for "everything".  This is usually not a call, but a site visit we may be conducting....

High EH&S: "Oh, I see you are using an glue which contains methylene chloride.  Have you had an air quality test completed for this exposure?"

Site Rep: "Sure.  Our insurance company came in and tested the air a number of years ago.  It is all fine."

High EH&S: "Do you have the results of these tests?"

Site Rep: "We can find them"

When these are produced we often find that the chemicals that were sampled may not include the specific contaminants of concern. Additionally, tests performed for just one substance fail to consider the combined effects of all the materials in the workplace.  If substances have similar critical effects they should be considered in combinations.  There is some, but limited information on how exposures to different materials interact inside the human body.  Just because you have the air tested, does not mean that everything has been checked and the air is "safe".  We see this often when emergency response organizations report that they have tested the air and it is clear. Usually these tests are very limited and cover only the very basic parameters. It is important to determine WHAT needs to be sampled and this might even be a different chemical than the original substance.

If the exposure is complaint based, it often makes sense to start with the complaints.  How many people are affected?  What are their chief complaints? What is the history of the compliant including onset, subsidence cycles?  Has a physician's diagnosis been provided?  Next, by considering the types of complaints which are often not well defined initially by the caller, we are able to determine the most likely contaminants which could lead to the observed complaints.  Statistical analysis of complaints or disease can be considered. Relationships between complaints and exposures can be evaluated.  A facility walk-through survey can provide additional clues as to what may be of concern.  For example, a facility where individuals are processing hot plastics and complaining of burning nose and throats may be an indication of thermal decomposition of the plastic materials into formaldehyde.

These initial steps allow us to evaluate WHAT should be sampled.  There are different methods and techniques used for different applications and conditions.  It is important to determine what sampling methods should be used.  For example, a test for viable fungi, will miss fungal particles which are not viable, but which can still produce hypersensitivity (Type I, II, IV) responses or contain chemical mycotoxins.  If the initial testing comes up empty, then a second level of testing can be performed for those materials which are less likely but still possible.  This process sometimes becomes a bit of a "ghost hunting" exercise as more and more materials are checked off the list, it requires more intuition and insight to attempt to identify a specific source of the expressed concerns. High EH&S brings a multi-faceted approach to really understanding the issues at hand.  We evaluate rather than run in with testing instruments that measure the wrong things and tell you that it is "all clear".  We also don't create issues where none exist.  We provide an objective science-based approach to evaluating the hazards and issues in the workplace.