Toxic contaminants that are unintentionally brought from the workplace into the home


Take-home exposures – toxic contaminants that are unintentionally brought from the workplace into the home, exposing children and other family members – are a documented public health hazard, but the majority of research and interventions have focused on take-home exposure to lead.

Much less is known about take-home exposures to other harmful metals.

Now, a new study led by a Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) researcher provides evidence that construction workers, in particular, are at high risk of inadvertently tracking a host of other toxic metals into their homes. The study identifies and measures the highest number of metals – 30 – in construction workers’ homes, to date.

Published in the journal Environmental Research, the findings reveal that, in addition to lead, construction workers had higher levels of arsenic, chromium, copper, manganese, nickel, and tin dust in their homes, compared to workers in janitorial and auto repair occupations. The study also found that overlapping sociodemographic, work, and home-related factors can affect metal concentrations in the dust of workers’ homes.

This new data underscores the need for more proactive and preventative measures that reduce these harmful exposures at construction sites.

“Given the lack of policies and trainings in place to stop this contamination in high-exposure workplaces such as construction sites, it is inevitable that these toxic metals will migrate to the homes, families, and communities of exposed workers,” says study lead and corresponding author Dr. Diana Ceballos, an assistant professor of environmental health and director of the Exposure Biology Research Laboratory at BUSPH.

“Many professions are exposed to toxic metals at work, but construction workers have a more difficult job implementing safe practices when leaving the worksite because of the type of transient outdoor environments where they work, and the lack of training on these topics.”

To better understand the sources and predictors of take-home exposure of metals dust, Ceballos and colleagues from BUSPH and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recruited 27 Greater Boston workers to participate in this pilot study from 2018-2019, focusing primarily on construction workers, but also including janitorial and auto repair workers.

To assess the metal concentrations in workers’ homes, the researchers visited the homes and collected dust vacuum samples, issued questionnaires to the workers about work and home-related practices that could affect exposure, and made other home observations.

The researchers found that higher concentrations of cadmium, chromium, copper, manganese, and nickel were associated with a range of sociodemographic and work- and home-related factors, including lower education, working in construction, not having a work locker to store clothes, mixing work and personal items, not having a place to launder clothes, not washing hands after work, and not changing clothes after work.

Further compounding the issue, Ceballos says, is that many construction workers live in disadvantages communities or substandard housing that may already contain toxic metals.

“Given the complexity of these issues, we need interventions on all fronts—not only policies, but also resources and education for these families,” she says.

Structural vulnerabilities and populations at risk of take-home exposures

Many years have passed since asbestos, lead, and other take-home contaminants were first detected and determined to be easily preventable through adequate occupational hygiene and policy. Yet the phenomenon persists across a wide range of industries, where prevention is challenged even in the presence of occupational legislation to mitigate chemical exposures in the workplace.

Research on take-home exposures should inherently complicate the strict dichotomy between the workplace and home by focusing on how harmful behaviors and poorer health outcomes can stem from a combination of working environments and persistent structural vulnerabilities.

Apart from the specific exposures and industries that have been detailed in the literature, research on these exposures is often conducted on populations that are most frequently affected, implying key structural vulnerabilities. In this review article, we discuss specifically: workplace discrimination, immigrant labor, precarious work arrangements, and community marginalization, with an additional focus on the children and domestic partners of workers. These vulnerabilities are outlined within a proposed conceptual model of take-home exposure factors displayed in Fig. 1.

Conceptual model of workplace, home, and community-level factors that allow for take-home exposures.
Conceptual model of workplace, home, and community-level factors that allow for take-home exposures.

This model forms the basis of an ecosocial approach to take-home exposures. Ecosocial theory centers the question of who is at risk of take-home exposures within the embodiment of material and social conditions, while acknowledging the cumulative interplay between exposure, susceptibility, and resistance (Berkman, 2014). This allows the perennial problem of take-home exposure related illness to be reframed as a question of who works and lives under which circumstances, and the reasons why.

This review will flesh out the context in which worker behaviors occur, deriving a better structural understanding of how risk is created and distributed along the take-home pathway. The structural vulnerabilities discussed in this analysis are empirically derived from case studies and research within specific populations, though there are likely a broader set of vulnerabilities and populations affected.

Each vulnerability stems from a lack of power in the workplace or broader society, resulting in conditions that heighten a group’s risk or suggest that multiple exposures accumulate in the home. In the reviewed literature, take-home exposures primarily affected racial or ethnic minority, young, low-income, temporary, or immigrant workers and their families.

However, under the ecosocial theory, one could expect that any marginalized and disempowered worker may struggle to secure safe housing and employment and could face similar structural vulnerabilities (formerly incarcerated workers for example). These vulnerabilities overlap and form a continuum of risk, unevenly distributing the impacts of hazardous work based on a system of advantages and disadvantages.

As such, this model emphasizes that occupational and environmental health policy and enforcement must be considered through a viewpoint of accountability and justice, and worker-centered interventions should promote empowerment while factoring in social conditions.

reference link :

More information: Diana M. Ceballos et al, Metals dust in workers’ homes and potential for take home in the Greater Boston area: Pilot study, Environmental Research (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.envres.2022.112893


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