Safety Partners’ is about to release our 5th version of Incidents, Accidents, and Near Misses in Laboratory Research which includes a real-life story of a lab employee who developed a chemical sensitivity to a commonly used lab chemical. She experienced allergy-like symptoms when exposed at exposures below established Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs) for this chemical, while her colleagues exposed to the same levels exhibited no adverse effects. It should be noted however, that OELs, including OSHA PELs and ACGIH TLVs, have been established for the protection of the average healthy worker and may not be protective of more sensitive populations including those with chemical sensitivities.

What is Chemical Sensitivity?

Chemical sensitivity is a physiological response that occurs in an individual following exposure to a chemical at levels that would not affect the vast majority of people.  Often chemical sensitivity can present as allergic type reactions including scratchy throat, watery eyes, and runny nose. In other instances, headache, rashes, and flu like symptoms can occur. A wide variety of substances can produce skin and lung hypersensitivity. Examples include such common substances as chromium, nickel, bichromates, formaldehyde, isocyanates, and certain phenols and mercaptans.

How can I deal with it?

Often chemical sensitivities can be managed by changing the work practices of the affected employee and/or their lab co-workers. This may include requiring that all work with the chemical causing the sensitivity be done in a fume hood. In other circumstances, respiratory protection may be needed, and in more extreme cases, it may be necessary to remove an employee from the workplace area where the problem is occurring, or restrict the employee from performing specific laboratory tasks that cause symptoms.

What causes chemical sensitivities?

There is some debate about this, but in a 2018 study by researchers at North Carolina State University published in Environmental Health Perspectives, data suggests that genetic factors could explain differential chemical sensitivity. In this study the researchers identified a genetic difference in Zebrafish tied to differing responses to the same chemical. This study is considered a starting point to confirming that individuals may react differently to chemicals based upon their genetic profile.

For additional information on chemical sensitivities, or for assistance in managing situations related to them at your workplace, please email info@safetypartnersinc.com and be sure to check out “Don’t Be So Sensitive” in Incidents, Accidents, and Near Misses in Laboratory Research (Volume 5)!