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Printer fumes ‘as dangerous as cigarettes’

24th August 2007

Tiny particles emitted by office printers may be as dangerous to health as cigarette smoke, a study has revealed.

Air quality tests showed that 30 per cent of laser printers emit ultra-fine particles that can cause respiratory diseases.

Lidia Morawska, the Australian professor who carried out the research, said the particles are capable of infiltrating lungs and causing lasting damage on the scale of inhaled cigarette smoke.

‘Ultra-fine particles are of most concern because they can penetrate deep into the lungs where they can pose a significant health threat,’ she said. ‘These particles are tiny, like cigarette smoke particles and when deep inside the lung they do the same amount of damage.’

Prof Morawska, who is based at Queensland University of Technology’s international laboratory for air quality and health, said the health effects from inhaling ultra-fine particles depend on particle composition, but the results can range from respiratory irritation to more severe illness such as cardiovascular problems or cancer.

The study found the level of particles increased five-fold during work hours in a large open-plan space. New toner cartridges emitted more particles and emissions varied a lot between different models.

The results, said Prof Morawska, highlight a need for governments to regulate particle emissions from printers, but employers can install decent ventilation in the meantime.

Bud Hudspith, the Unite union’s national health and safety officer, said he was concerned about the findings and had sent the paper to the Health and Safety Executive.

‘Unfortunately, the paper does not identify any health limits for toner dust, but instead identifies high and low emitters,’ he said. ‘Naturally, we would argue that all levels should be reduced, but we have the problem of not having any limit to judge these emissions against.’

In spite of this: ‘We would expect printer manufacturers to minimise particle emissions, and we are awaiting a response from them.’

The union has long campaigned for photocopiers and printers to be kept in well-ventilated areas and not in small, confined spaces.