Reviewing Today Tonight’s insulation exclusive

As an example of “tabloid TV” the Today Tonight (TT) report broadcast on 17 February 2010 concerning children assisting workers to install insulation, was very good.  It probably benefited from my own appearances remaining brief.

The topicality of a story on the home insulation industry could not have been higher yesterday as a Senate inquiry into the Australian Government’s environment and job creation scheme held hearings in Melbourne.  TT led its show with the scandalous report.

The video of a young boy handling large bags of insulation on a roof is disturbing; the unprotected handling of the insulation material by the young boy is similar.  That the children were allowed to be on the roof by the homeowner and parents is a parental supervision issue and outside the scope of this blog.  That the workers allowed them to be present and did not tell the children to get down is more disturbing and a clear breach of the workers’ OHS obligations. Continue reading “Reviewing Today Tonight’s insulation exclusive”

Television exposé of children at risk on roof insulation worksite

On 16 February 2010, I was interviewed by Channel 7 television in Melbourne over 20 minutes of footage they had received that showed unacceptable work practices at a domestic site in Cranbourne.

Emails from friends told me that my words and face were used in promotional ads by the TV program. At the time of writing this, I have not seen the ads and I have no idea what words of mine they will use in the program to be broadcast this evening, 17 February 2010. [Video now available online]

Today Tonight has video of  two men who are installing fibreglass insulation into a domestic roof space after having made an entry by removing some roof tiles.  The men were employed to undertake the work by a company that has registered with the Australian Government for the task.  The workers are equipped with face masks, gloves and coveralls.  No fall protection was provided. Continue reading “Television exposé of children at risk on roof insulation worksite”

Formaldehyde upgraded to human carcinogen

On 4 November 2009, the United States’ National Toxicology Program (NTP) upgraded formaldehyde to a “known human carcinogen”.  This widely used chemical, principally in wood products, has been suspected of being carcinogenic for some time.

The suspicion was a major reason why, in Australia, Comcare issued a cautionary safety alert on using some shipping containers as converted accommodation.  But the Comcare advice was based, and reasonably so, on a manufacturers’ material safety data sheet (MSDS).

One such MSDS selected at random from the Australian internet sites has this to say about formaldehyde:

Reported fatal dose for humans: 60-90 mL

Oral LD50 (rat): 800 mg/kg

Inhalation LC50 (rat): 590 mg/m3

Low concentrations of formaldehyde may cause sensitisation by skin contact. Formaldehyde vapour is irritant to mucous membranes and respiratory tract. Asthma like symptoms have occasionally been reported following inhalation.

Animal studies have shown formaldehyde to cause carcinogenic effects. In particular, chronic inhalation studies in rats have shown the development of nasal cavity carcinomas at 6 and 15 ppm. These cancers developed at concentrations which produced chronic tissues irritation and would not be voluntarily tolerated by humans. [IPCS Environmental Health Criteria 89, Formaldehyde, World Health Organisation [WHO], Geneva, 1989.]

Some positive mutagenic effects have been reported for formaldehyde. Available animal data do not show embryotoxic or teratogenic effects following exposure to formaldehyde.

The NTP notes that formaldehyde effects have now been identified as having a role in leukaemia and not just localised inhalation-related cancers.

The MSDS is dated 2004 and Australian OHS legislation only requires MSDS to be updated at five-yearly intervals.  Of course they can be updated more frequently should the employer chose or, perhaps if the manufacturer advises them of a reclassification.

It is interesting that a 2004 MSDS still refers to WHO data that is fifteen years old and that the reference is to a non-Australian criterion.  It is accepted that chemical reclassification and research are long processes but what should the updating timeline be now that the US has made this significant re-categorisation?

Perhaps the Australia classifications will gain speed given that the more compatible European re-categorisation of formaldehyde, and other chemicals, was announced overnight.  The EU-OSHA website states

“Formaldehyde was confirmed as carcinogenic to humans. There is sufficient evidence in humans of an increased incidence of nasopharyngeal.”

However the human leukaemia issue was discusses in the evaluation summaries:

“The Working Group was almost evenly split on the evaluation of formaldehyde causing leukaemias in humans, with the majority viewing the evidence as sufficient for carcinogenicity and the minority viewing the evidence as limited.  Particularly relevant to the discussions regarding sufficient evidence was a recent study accepted for publication which, for the first time, reported aneuploidy in blood of exposed workers characteristic of myeloid leukaemia and myelodysplastic syndromes with supporting information suggesting a decrease in the major circulating blood cell types and in circulating haematological precursor cells.  The authors and Working Group felt this study needed to be replicated.”

Given that wood products that contain formaldehyde are used frequently in cabinet-making it is fair to expect MSDSs and OHS guidances on hazardous substances and wood dusts would be reissued and databases updated fairly quickly.  Just as important is the fact that particle boards are commonly sold in hardware and timber outlets in Australia and that Spring and Summer is often the DIY peak.

It is not hard to picture an unscrupulous media outlet generating a panic about the presence of formaldehyde in these products regardless of how the chemical is bound or whether inhalation risks are minimised.

Kevin Jones

NZ proposes new exposure levels on formaldehyde

The New Zealand of Department of Labour is continuing its negotiations on new exposure levels for formaldehyde.

The latest proposed exposure levels for formaldehyde are 0.3 ppm (8 hour TWA) and 0.6 ppm (STEL).  Currently the levels in New Zealand are 1ppm (ceiling).

According to US OSHA, it’s exposure standard is


TWA: The employer shall assure that no employee is exposed to an airborne concentration of formaldehyde which exceeds 0.75 parts formaldehyde per million parts of air (0.75 ppm) as an 8-hour TWA.


Short Term Exposure Limit (STEL): The employer shall assure that no employee is exposed to an airborne concentration of formaldehyde which exceeds two parts formaldehyde per million parts of air (2 ppm) as a 15-minute STEL.

WorkSafe BC says

BC‘s current 8-hour TWA of 0.3 ppm is well below levels capable of causing adverse health effects and protects the worker from the pungent, unpleasant odour of formaldehyde.

NZ DoL is also discussing dropping there exposure levels for soft wood dust from 5mg/m3 to 1mg/m3.

The cancer risks of formaldehyde have been investigated over some time and the weight of evidence shows that this chemical is a probable human carcinogen.

Kevin Jones

Formaldehyde risks of temporary accommodation

There is continuing concern in the United States about the thousands of claims of health problems by survivors of Hurricane Katrina related to living in trailers provided to them by the government. (A 23 July 2008 podcast includes a mention of this issue but the relevant information is within the first 3 minutes)  The problem is that residents were exposed to toxic levels of formaldehyde.

This may sound familiar to some Australian OHS professionals as similar claims were made over formaldehyde exposure in temporary housing for government workers who were participating in the Federal government’s indigenous intervention program.  The ABC reported that the government investigation found 

“department’s response to the complaints was slow and inappropriate given the seriousness of the health risk.”

An earlier report on this matter containing commitments to health and safety by the Minister is available HERE

The full report by Tony Blunn is available for download as is the relevant media statement by Jenny Macklin, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

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