The dangers of indoor chemical pollution
"Our Corporation makes no warranty with respect to such [health effects] information, and Our Corporation assumes no liability resulting from [the photocopier's] use. Users should make their own investigation to determine the suitability of the information for their particular purposes."
- Konica Minolta, MSDS for its bizhub PRO 920 high-volume photocopier
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First, how long have photocopier machines been around?
The first commercial photocopiers appeared in the early 1960’s. The emergence of these machines were a revolutionary alternative to the use of carbon paper (remember typewriters?), ditto machines and costly professional printing services. Today, there’s hardly not an office in the country that doesn’t have least one photocopy machine. They range in size and services from small, personal copiers to high-speed, multi-purpose machines that kick out hundreds of thousands of copies a year.
How does a photocopier machine work?
The "ink" in a copier is a very fine black powder known as toner, or by its chemical name, carbon black. Carbon Black usually comes in a replaceable cartridge, and is classified a carcinogen, which means it is "capable of inducing cancer." Very special care must be taken when handling toner cartridges, and they must be disposed of properly, not, for instance, simply tossed into a trash can.
Inside the copier, a drum is selectively charged with static electricity from which a copier makes an image on various surfaces of the drum. On the black part of the original document (ie: print, photos, logos, etc.), static electricity is created on the drum; the static electricity is not created on parts of the paper that is white.
The drum then selectively attracts the toner. The sheet of paper is charged with static electricity, and through of combination of heat and chemicals, it pulls toner off the drum.
What kind of chemicals?
The chemical ingredients on photocopiers – or anything dealing with chemicals – can be found on the product’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). It is important to understand that federal law requires "chemical manufacturers or importers" to make available a MSDS on any chemical labeled as hazardous that is manufactured or brought into a workplace. And as you will soon read, chemicals used in photocopiers are anything but safe. Regarding access to an MSDS: Don’t ever let anyone hinder or intimidate you from seeing one! The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) clearly states:
"The employer shall maintain in the workplace copies of the required material safety data sheets for each hazardous chemical, and shall ensure that they are readily accessible during each work shift to employees when they are in their work area(s). (Electronic access, microfiche, and other alternatives to maintaining paper copies of the material safety data sheets are permitted as long as no barriers to immediate employee access in each workplace are created by such options.)"
Again, employers or places of business that cannot or refuse to produce a MSDS are in violation of the law.
Okay. So what is a photocopier’s MSDS going to reveal?
Oftentimes, the most prominent chemical in most photocopiers is styrene, or as it’s known, styrene-acrylate copolymer. An excellent source of the effects of chemicals on humans as well on the environment is . According to Scorecard, styrene is "suspected" of being a carcinogen, a cardiovascular or blood toxicant, an endocrine toxicant, a gastrointestinal or liver toxicant, a kidney toxicant, a neurotoxin, a respiratory toxicant, and a reproductive toxicant, to mention a few. OSHA states that styrene causes various levels of irritation to the nose and throat, may cause headaches, dizziness and fatigue, impair co-ordination and balance and states that "a number of studies have reported on the effect to the central nervous system of repeated exposure to styrene vapours."
Keep in mind that manufacturers of photocopiers are in business of selling copiers; their MSDS's are going to state the minimum dangers. Most of the MSDS's for the large-capacity copiers produced by a major photocopier manufacturer, for example, in regard to carbon black, are required by law to state that in 1996 carbon black was reevaluated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a Group 2 carcinongen (possible human carcinongen). Yet this manufacturer skirts the possible dangers of skin effect, eye effect and inhalation acute toxicity, as well as numerous other possible dangers from chemicals used in their copiers as either "none currently known" or "no data available."
What other chemicals may be contributing to indoor air pollution from photocopiers?
Naphthalene (the key ingredient in mothballs) is another chemical commonly used in older photocopiers. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified naphthalene as a persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) chemical. A PBT does not readily break down in the environment, does not easily metabolize, and may be hazardous to human health or the environment. The EPA has classified naphthalene as a high priority PBT chemical.
What impact does naphthalene have on the body?
Naphthalene affects people by inhalation or passing through the skin. Exposure to large amounts of naphthalene may damage or destroy red blood cells. Some symptoms include fatigue, lack of appetite, restlessness and pale skin. Exposure to large amounts of naphthalene may also cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and blood in the urine. What mothers-to-be inhale, so does baby: unborn children are equally susceptible to naphthalene as well as any other chemical vapor poisoning.
It's stated here that styrene has been "suspected" to cause cancer. How about naphthalene?
Neither the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the U.S. EPA have classified naphthalene to cause cancer; nor does OSHA classify naphthalene as a carcinogen. But as the previous paragraph states, naphthalene is anything but safe; a recent MSDS, for example, warns that naphthalene is "harmful if swallowed or inhaled. Causes irritation to skin, eyes and respiratory tract. May affect liver, kidney, blood and central nervous system." The MSDS goes on to state that "inhalation of dust or vapors can cause headache, nausea, vomiting, extensive sweating and disorientation. The predominant reaction is delayed intravascular hemolysis with symptoms of anemia, fever, jaundice, and kidney or liver damage."
This is scaring the pajamas off of me.
This ain’t the Disney Channel, boys and girls; photocopier pollution is serious business. And most likely the office in which you work does not only subject you to chemical and carbon black poisoning, but the building itself is a controlled environment. So instead of any outside air being brought in, the polluted indoor air is continuously re-circulated. Add to that any suspended ceilings, which may trap the fumes like a sponge, and you've got a fairly dangerous situation.
Why aren’t fumes from photocopiers regulated?
It takes years, often decades, for the federal government to recognize that something is dangerous. One example is the X-ray. X-rays came into being in the late 1800’s, but today’s limits to X-ray exposure weren’t adopted until the late 1950's. Meanwhile, as countless workers throughout the early 1900’s who were exposed to X-ray radiation developed illnesses from radiation poisoning – with many dying along the way -- the standards were gradually increased. And remember leaded gasoline? It, too, was used throughout most of the 20th century until it was recognized that lead in gasoline causes brain and nervous-system damage.
Is there a safe standard for exposure to styrene and naphthalene?
According to OSHA, there are "allowed" minimal standards, measured in parts per million (PPM) over a certain length of time. But it takes a trained OSHA representative using an expensive, special detector to determine the exposure levels; these detectors aren’t available to the general public. Regardless of the stated minimal standards, repeated daily exposure to any hazardous chemical is going to take a toll on anyone’s health. And just as untold numbers of workers throughout the early 20th century were subjected to dangerous levels of X-ray exposure, who’s to say that today’s office workers are already exposed to irreversible amounts of PBTs or other chemical toxins that are presently classified as "accepted" levels?
Again, photocopiers are still relatively new, and lots of different models are made by many companies. If X-rays and leaded gasoline are any examples, your great-grandchildren could be living on Mars before the federal government takes action on regulating styrene, carbon black, naphthalene and other chemicals to which people are exposed by photocopiers.
Manufacturers don't even require its copiers to be vented! Not only are photocopiers permitted to fill a workplace with deadly fumes, but there’s also no state or federal mandatory inspection of these machines. So like an old farm tractor that chug-a-lugs exhaust, a high-use copier can also emit more chemical pollution as it gets older, and legally do so, as no emissions standard exists.
Are there any instances on record of illnesses developed from exposure to photocopier machines?
Yes! According to 'Photocopier Machines and Occupational Antiphospholipid Syndrome' (see link below), an article written by a pair of Israeli physicians, "two patients who worked for several years in the operation and maintenance of photocopy machines developed an autoimmune disease [a disease in which one's immune defenses turn on one's self]. These two patients were occupationally exposed to ultraviolet radiation, ozone emission, and possibly some oxides of heavy metals. To our knowledge, this is the first report of occupational autoimmune disease in photocopy machine workers."
What about laser printers?
Most of these, too, are anything but safe. The August 7, 2007 issue of TIME featured an article, 'Is Your Printer Making You Sick?' (See link below.) The article reported that a recent Australian study performed by the Queensland Institute of Technology determined that nearly 30% of 62 printers they tested emitted high levels of ultrafine toner particles. Among the manufacturers of the printers were Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba and Ricoh. The emitted high levels of particles made the air potentially as hazardous as cigarette smoke and were five times higher during working hours than non-working hours. Combined with the fumes, vapors and fumes emitted by photocopiers, this is one additional contributor to polluted indoor air.
Furthermore, Krank durch Toner, a German website, states that "very often laser printers cause harmful pollution and they are blamed for irritation and inflammation of the respiratory tract, the eyes, the skin and (can cause) headache." (See http://krank-durch-toner.de/english.html.) Krank durch Toner describes the symptoms of toner pollution as "a cold which doesn't stop. Very often it is the beginning of a severe chronic lung disease." The article also features enlargement photos of toner particles, and describes how "toners are very often charged with heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOC's), which are set free during the printing process."
Will it do good to bring my concerns regarding the dangers of photocopier and laser printer poisoning to management?
The overwhelming chance is that your boss will make you out to be a troublemaker, and won’t even want to listen to you, much less willing to take corrective measures. The Australian office of Occupational, Health & Safety -- the U.S. equivalent of OSHA -- points out that both photocopiers and laser printers produce ozone gas, which at excessive levels can reduce one's ability to smell. So if your boss has had his or her sense of smell compromised from inhaling photocopier fumes, it could be like complaining about machinery noise to someone who long ago had lost their hearing due to high decible exposure at the workplace.
Even if it is brought to management's attention regarding the fetal dangers that pregnant women in the office may be unknowingly inflicting upon their unborn children, the company will most likely ignored this concern.
Can anything be done to minimize exposure to photocopier chemicals?
More often than not, photocopiers can be moved to a separate room and vented to the outside by installing exhaust vents similar to those used above the oven in an average home. (If your company rents its office space, however, the owner of the property may understandably resist allowing a tenant to alter the building’s structure.) However, air exchangers can be placed in offices to filter out not only photocopier fumes, but all the other silent emissions from laser printers, computers, chemicals in carpeting (namely formaldehyde), fresh paint, perfumes, hair sprays, insecticides, germs, etc. But this first takes recognition by the company that photocopiers – as well as other indoor pollutants – pose a serious problem. Experience has demonstrated that that’s not likely to happen.
Keep in mind that if a company takes a corrective step regarding possible photocopier pollution, then it’s admitting by this very action that there was a problem, thus, setting itself up for a host of lawsuits: the company could be sued, for instance, by a mother whose child is born with muscular, neurological, physical or behavioral abnormalities. So for legal reasons, a company’s lawyers might tell it to do absolutely nothing to reduce photocopier pollution.
In other words, if a company may declare its customer service motto as "Do the Right Thing," when it comes to the health of its workers, it clearly may alter that to "Do the Legal Thing."
So, what if my company doesn’t vent the photocopiers?
The only choice you’ll have is to remove yourself from the source(s) of the poisoning, in other words, to find another position in the company (not likely, as you’ll be labeled a troublemaker) or, most probably, leave your job. Chances are if the boss isn’t affected, and especially if nobody else is complaining, then nothing is going to be done. Your only last and drastic alternative is to wear a paint respirator mask that’s equipped with replaceable vapor filters while on the job. Are you willing to do that? And is your boss willing to allow you to spook others and tarnish the company’s image by wearing one? Probably not.
It's awfully tough to find an office job these days that does not subject one to chemical poisoning from photocopier fumes. This poisoning is an international epidemic; photocopier poisoning is slow process; damage to the nervous system and the brain through chemical inhalation takes place by repeated exposure over a long period of time. Thus, what may not bother you today could be something that cripples you later as your nervous system slowly deteriorates and other deadly risks from exposure occur.
Photocopier fumes are deadly, and as time goes on and more people become affected, more and more news articles will emerge. Kitty Nicholson, a senior conservator at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., writes in 'Photocopier Hazards and a Conservation Case Study':
"The electrostatic photocopier works by generating a strong electrical charge on the photoreceptor surface. The charge is made by a corona discharge called a conrotron. It is well known in the photocopier industry that corotron charging devices generate both ozone and nitrous oxides from the reaction of charged ions and electrons with atmospheric gases. These gases can be harzardous..."
As stated earlier, It's the ozone gas that may dull one's sense of smell. So what your nose or your boss' sense of smell may not detect now, you or others' body surely wlll later, probably detrimentally, as toxins build up and take their toll. It's only a matter of time.
You can take steps to limit your exposure to these crippling fumes. The alternative is to ignore these dangers and risk spending your retirement with a host of crippling illnesses, compliments of years of dedicated service to various companies that refused to recognize a silent menace:.
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‘How the Photocopier Works’ Nigel Bunce and Jim Hunt, College of Physical Science, University of Guelph. www.physics.uoguelph.ca
Carbon Black; Health Effects; Carcinogens
www.OSHA.gov Regulations (Standards-29 CFR, Hazard Communication, 1900-1200 (g) (8)
, Styrene, Chemical Profiles
www.OSHA.gov, Code of Practice: Styrene -4. Health Effects of Styrene Exposure
Konica Minolta MSDS # MFP 1163
OHIO EPA, Pollution Prevention Fact Sheet, September 2002, Number 101
MSDS, ‘Naphthalene,’ Mallinckrodt Baker, Inc. 222 Red School Lane, Phillipsburg, N.J. 08865
TIME, 7 August 2007, 'Is Your Printer Making You Sick?'
Australian Occupational Health & Safety Act, Charles Sturt University 'OSH Policy Questions' http://www.csu.edu.au/division/healsafe/faqs/faq1.htm
'Photocopier Machines and Occupational Antiphospholipid Syndrome,' Shlomo Bar-Sela, MD and Yehuda Shoenfeld, MD.
Kitty Nicholson, 'Photocopier Hazards and a Conservation Case Study,'