SYNTHETIC MINERAL FIBRE, Sydney Darlington
What are synthetic mineral fibres?
Synthetic Mineral Fibre is a general term used to describe a number of fibrous materials made from glass, rock, alumina and silica. Some of these products are composed of a mixture of fibres in a multitude of sizes. Generally referred to as SMF, they are also known as Man Made Mineral Fibres (MMMF).
SMFS have been widely used as alternatives to asbestos in insulation and fire-rating products and as reinforcement in cement, plaster and plastic materials. SMFS products are used extensively in commercial and residential buildings for insulation from temperature and sound.
Health effects of SMFSs
For some years, there were concerns that SMF may be associated with health effects similar to those found with asbestos. This was because of the similarities in appearance, as well as the industrial application, of SMF and asbestos. Now there is a large amount of scientific data from various studies, including epidemiological studies of workers in SMF industries. Reviews of these results show a number of health effects from exposure to various SMF.
Short term exposure can result in:
- Skin and eye irritation – more likely in workers having direct contact with SMFS products for the first time or after a period of absence. May involve reddening, burning, itching, prickling, scaling, thickening and inflammation around the fingernails.
- Upper respiratory tract irritation – likely during exposure to very high concentrations of SMF in the air.
Long term exposure to SMF was shown to be associated with a slightly increased risk of lung cancer among exposed workers in early SMF industries. Animal studies have shown the potential of SMF to cause mesothelioma, but no cases of this lung disease were reported from studies in the fibreglass and rockwool manufacturing industries.
Animal studies and epidemiological results have led the World Health Organisation (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer to classify fibres such as rockwool, ceramic and glass fibre as Class 2B carcinogens. That is, they are possibly carcinogenic to humans.
With other cancer-causing substances (carcinogens), we know that there is no safe level of exposure -that is, there is no low level that can be guaranteed not to cause an increased cancer risk. However, Current scientific opinion is that SMF caused chronic health effects will not occur under typical “modern-day” operations, provided adequate precautions are taken in the workplace.
Occupational exposure standards
The current national exposure standard set by Worksafe Australia is 0.5 fibres per milliliter of air for all types of SMF. This is the average concentration of fibres in the air measured and calculated over a normal eight-hour working day. Due to the limitations of available data on which to set a health-based exposure standard, another standard is applied alongside this. The secondary standard recommends 2 mg/m3 of inspirable dust to minimise upper respiratory tract irritation from the larger sized fibres.
In NSW the most important laws covering Synthetic Removal Fibres are the NSW Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000 and the NSW Occupational Health and Safety Regulation 2001.
The NSW WorkCover Code of Practice for the Safe Use of Synthetic Mineral Fibres and the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission's National Code of Practice for the Safe Use of Synthetic Mineral Fibres provide guidance on how to achieve a safe level of exposure at work. Compliance with these Codes of Practice is a minimum requirement to ensure the health and safety of employees and reduce the risk of exposure to SMF.
ADE can ensure that effective control measures are in place through monitoring of the SMF exposure levels and testing the materials to see if they contain SMF. All testing methods are NATA accredited in our in-house laboratory, offering a one hour turnaround time on analysis.
The air sampling should be undertaken by an adequately trained person using the SMF membrane filter method. Records of all air monitoring must be kept by the employer, who should inform all workers using SMF about the results and about any risk control measures.
ADE can provide information and training about working safely with SMF as well as management plans and instructions for the controls to be implemented for its safe use.