Construction workers who sand drywall joint compound or work on drywall demolition are often exposed to high concentrations of drywall dusts. These dusts contain minerals such as talc, calcite, mica, gypsum, and silica that have been associated with eye, nose, throat, and respiratory tract irritation. Over time, breathing the dust from drywall joint compounds may cause persistent throat and airway irritation, coughing, phlegm production, and breathing difficulties that are similar to asthma. There is a risk of more serious health problems developing for workers who smoke or have pre-existing sinus or respiratory conditions. When silica is present in dust, workers also face an increased risk of silicosis and lung cancer.
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Health Hazards of Drywall Dust
In 1999, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued a health hazard alert about the dangers of drywall construction after a NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) found that drywall sanders were exposed to as much as ten times the OSHA permissible exposure limit (a PEL of 15 mg/m3) for total dust.
- Throat and lung irritation
- Breath in drywall dust can cause immediate discomfort. Symptoms include:
- Nose, throat or lung irritation
A person experiencing irritation, coughing, or choking after being exposed to drywall dust should be moved to a place with fresh air. If the symptoms do not subside, the person should seek medical help and be tested for more chronic conditions such as asthma, silicosis and lung cancer.
Drywall dust contains crystalline silica and mica, which have been named hazardous materials by OSHA. Both silica and mica are found in the joint compound mud that fills the nail heads and seams that hold drywall in place. When drywall is sanded, crystalline silica and mica is released into the air as dust. These minerals are extremely dangerous to the lungs. When they are inhaled, they are embedded in lung tissue. The lung tissue develops fiber nodules and scarring around the silica particles; this is known as silicosis. Symptoms can occur weeks or years after exposure and include increased difficulty breathing. In severe cases, death can occur from lung disease or from tuberculosis.
Exposure Can Lead to Chronic Conditions, Including Cancer
Other chronic conditions can develop from prolonged exposure to drywall dust. Crystalline silica is considered a human carcinogen and may cause lung cancer. Drywall dust is also associated with asthma and autoimmune diseases, including scleroderma (thickening of the skin), systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis and kidney disease. Drywall workers who are exposed to crystalline silica are also at an increased risk for tuberculosis, kidney diseases and renal disease.
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