The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

Assessment of levels and “health-effects” of airborne particulate matter in mining, metal refining and metal working industries


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The increased awareness of occupational health, hygiene and safety in recent years has resulted in improvement of working conditions and in reducing workers’ exposure to many toxic substances. However, substantial hazards remain, the number of cases of occupational illness due to hazardous exposure is still high, and new cases will continue to occur if there are no further improvements. During the past years investigations have revealed a number of examples of unreported health problems related to occupational exposure. New problems have appeared with changes related to energy development, biotechnology, electronics, chemicals and other industrial activities. There is an increasing tendency to develop essentially ambient, but also biological limits and to develop methods of ensuring their implementation, thereby preventing health damage from exposure to toxic substances. Aspects of monitoring include providing information to help achieve compliance with standards, validating compliance and accumulating information for later revision of the standards.

Nuclear and related analytical techniques (NRATs) have important applications in the study of workplace monitoring associated with mining, refining and metal working industries, providing useful data in the assessment of possible negative health effects. Toxic heavy metals, together with trace elements that may have harmful effects, can be determined in airborne particulates and in human tissues by neutron activation analysis (NAA) using research nuclear reactors, by other modes of activation analysis (e.g. with photons), by particle induced X ray emission (PIXE) analysis, by nuclear microprobe techniques, by X ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis and by inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) analysis.

For many years the IAEA has been supporting coordinated research within the framework of a project on “Environmental pollution monitoring and research using nuclear and related analytical techniques”. The objective of this work was to demonstrate the applicability of nuclear and related analytical techniques (mainly NAA, XRF, PIXE and ICP-MS) in studies of non-radioactive pollutants that may impact human health, with emphasis on problems that have been identified to be of high priority in national and international programmes for sustainable development. In view of the fact that the highest concentrations of toxic substances, in particular metals and their compounds, are generally observed in the workplace environment, the IAEA started in 1996 a Coordinated Research Project (CRP) on “Assessment of levels and health-effects of airborne particulate matter in mining, metal refining and metal working industries using nuclear and related analytical techniques”.

A total of 11 countries, with participants from Africa, Asia, Europe and South America participated in the CRP. The CRP activities continued until December 2001. The first Research Coordination Meeting (RCM) was held in Vienna in October 1997. The second meeting was held in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in May 1999, while the third and last meeting was hosted by the Government of Kenya in Nairobi, in March 2001. Several investigations were carried out beyond the final meeting and more detailed evaluations of the results obtained were performed after the CRP closure. These additional findings are included in individual country contributions as well as compiled in this summary.

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