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The Dangers of Exposure to Construction Site Dust

Construction dust can be a significant problem for many people. Airborne dust can cause a wide range of health and lung problems for construction workers, but it also creates a concern for people living near construction sites.

Whether you work in construction or simply want to understand the risks and solutions for air quality, having a foundation of knowledge can help your health and safety.

Let’s take a look at construction dust to discover how you can keep a clean, dust-free space at home and at work.

Types of Dust that Come from Construction Sites

Modern construction involves many different materials. At any construction site, you may find metal, wood, concrete, sand, sheetrock, and plastics. Because of the various materials being used, the unhealthy dust emissions from a construction site can be full of numerous particles.

When learning about scientific topics, you often come across terms that are only used by a small group of people. When it comes to construction site dust, one of those terms is “respirable silica.” This is essentially a dust from any type of quartz, which is a common mineral that can be released into the air when working with a wide range of materials.

Typical dust from a construction site includes silica dust, which is created when working with materials that contain silica, including concrete and sandstone. Wood dust is another common type created by construction sites. When working with either hard or soft wood, dust particles can be released into the air. Wood dust also comes from manufactured products such as fiberboard and plywood. Dust will also come from lower-toxicity materials, such as gypsum, limestone, dolomite, and marble.

Do Certain Construction Tasks Create More Dust?

Not all construction tasks are the same, and some will release more dust and particulate matter than others. For example, cutting, in almost any way, will create a lot of dust. Whether you are sawing lumber for carpentry or cutting gaps in a new sidewalk, the simple act of cutting generally creates a lot of dust. Working with concrete and mortar is often a source of dust and cutting roofing tiles can also release a lot of particles.

Grinding concrete or other construction materials will throw dust into the air, and sanding or smoothing wood can be a source of dust as well.


What are the Dangers of Construction Site Dust?

Dust at a construction site can take many different forms, and the materials released into the air can be made of rock, wood, chemicals, and even metal, creating a potentially lethal dust that can spread for a very long distance.

For example, a study from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia looked at the effects of long-term exposure to cement dust. The researchers looked specifically at the effects of cement dust on lung function among mill workers, who were divided into three groups: those that worked in the mill for less than five years, five to ten years, and over ten years.

By looking at the lung function of mill workers, and dividing the information by how long they have worked at the facility, researchers found that exposure to cement dust was linked to respiratory health issues, causing both one-time and ongoing respiratory diseases while impairing overall lung function. This study is important because it made the link between the longevity of exposure and showed that, essentially, the longer you breathe in dust, the more likely you are to have problems with your lungs.

But it’s not just cement dust that can cause a problem; virtually anything that is sanded, milled, sawed, or crushed can release dust. For example, an evaluation from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that construction workers who sand drywall joint compound (the plaster used to cover drywall joints, often called “drywall mud”) were exposed to respirable silica and other dust particles. The study from NIOSH found that workers were exposed to 10-times the permissible amount of dust set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.


Demolition and Dust: The Potential for Toxic Dust

Workers don’t necessarily have to be building something for there to be a risk of dust exposure. In fact, managing dust at demolition sites, where something is being destroyed, can be extremely dangerous because of chemicals that have, since the home was constructed, been discovered to be harmful.

According to the EPA, demolishing a home with lead-based paint can create a health hazard in the area by creating lead dust. Dust, they say, is the #1 way that lead gets into the body, and the process of demolishing an old house can create a significant amount of lead dust. This dust can fall near an area or settle on a surface, and demolition workers can also track dust into their homes and communities, exposing others to the toxic particles.

It’s essential that workers minimize lead dust exposure as much as possible. Lead-safe practices include containing dust inside the work area and using work methods that minimize the amount of dust created. Conducting a careful cleanup of the debris created by the demolition is also important.


The Dangers of Respirable Crystalline Silica

A danger facing construction workers (and nearby homes) comes from respirable crystalline silica, which is a common mineral found in many building materials, including stone and sand. If someone works with these materials, they can be exposed to a small amount of silica particles, which are extremely small and can easily be inhaled. (Meaning they are “respirable.”)

These materials can travel deep into your lungs and cause silicosis, which is incurable and, on rare occasions, deadly. Respirable crystalline silica is also linked to lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. In most cases, however, the disease will occur after years of exposure to the materials.

Respirable crystalline silica is common among the manufacturing of glass, pottery, brick, and concrete, as well as asphalt roofing and porcelain, among many other products. Use of industrial sand can also release silica.


Dust Control Plan for a Home

If you live near a construction site, here are actions you can take to breathe cleaner air.

If you can see or smell poor air quality from the outside air it is important to close your doors and windows. Sealing the windows can also help to keep the tiny airborne dust particles from entering your home.

Now that you are limiting the outside dust from entering your home, the next step is to ensure the air inside is filtered to be as clean as possible. There are two parts to this. First, we suggest a high-quality vacuum cleaner to remove the dust that settles to the ground. If your floors are dusty or dirty, then walking around can stir any settled dust back into the air.

The second step is to use an air purifier for dust removal. A  high efficiency air filter with a strong motor is the best way to remove the tiny dust particles from the air so you do not breathe them in. The smallest airborne particles are the most dangerous and therefore most important to remove from the air.


How to Control Dust at Construction Sites

This issue, fortunately, can be controlled. But it takes dedication and persistence. Employers can protect their staff by using wet methods to apply water at the point where dust is being made. Applying water at the point of contact creates a sludge that is easier to control and contain than dust in the air. This is often the most-used choice for controlling dust, because it is both affordable and easy to implement. Water can be applied to the point of sawing or grinding, and sometimes water is sprayed over entire construction sites to control dust from dirt, which is often exposed due to construction activities. 

Another option is to use local exhaust ventilation at the point where dust is created. This sucks the dust away before it can travel into the room. Essentially, this method uses a vacuum cleaner that has been modified for industrial and construction purposes. The suction point stays close to the point of operation, removing the dust instantly after it is created and stores it in bags or containers. This is a common method for controlling wood dust, but it can be used during other tasks.

Air filtering respirators can also be used in construction sites. These masks provide added breathing protection, and are often used in addition to other methods, such as wet collection or suction. To have proper protection with a dust mask, proper fit is crucial. It should fit firmly, but not tightly, on your face so the only air coming to your mouth is venting through the mask. These masks, however, have limited use and should be replaced regularly to ensure proper breathing. Respirators can also be used, although these generally are used more for gas and vapors, not necessarily dust.


Regulations for Construction Sites

There are many issues surrounding construction site dust, and many of these issues are addressed by the EPA. The EPA, however, is a federal organization, but control of dust from construction sites is often regulated and monitored by local and state ordinances. These ordinances can be state law, county codes, or regulations enacted by city councils or even mayors. Learn more about monitoring and testing air quality.

Therefore, requirements for dust are specific to the location, and one construction site in a certain area may have different regulations, even when the second site is in the same county. It’s essential that you work with local and state regulators to verify that certain construction or demolition projects are following the laws and regulations in your area.

Even where permits may not be required, there is a need for contractors to have some permits, and there could also be contract provisions requiring specific control measures for dust.

Dust released into the environment is a significant concern for both the workers and people who live near the construction site. This is especially true for anyone that could be vulnerable to dust, such as people with asthma or COPD. As we discussed above, construction dust can contain harmful particles, so keeping it from being released into the air is a crucial component of public health.

If you are interested in reviewing the regulations for demolition sites in your area, you can use the EPA’s website, which has extensive information on the laws affecting construction and demolition in each state.


Air Purification: What Are Your Options?

If you are operating an indoor construction site, it may be wise to use an air purifier for dust. Air purifiers can trap some of the smallest dust particles, and while most are intended for light indoor use, they can be utilized in commercial spaces.

Contact the team at Oransi to learn more about the dust containing options for air purifiers. Whether you need an air purifier for a small room or a remodeling project, we’ll show you all the best options so you can make an informed decision.