Science

Environmental scientist awarded $2.5 million to measure industrial dust, protect worker health

September 20, 2012

Colorado State University scientist John Volckens will spend the next four years trudging through dairies, feedlots, metal machine shops and refineries to measure industrial dust particles that can cause health problems.

Professor John Volckens holding the sample technology he hopes to improve for tracking industrial dustScientists have gotten really good at finding, tracking and measuring microscopic aerosols, but oddly enough, it’s the big particles they can’t pin down.

Unfortunately, that big stuff – dust created in such industrial processes as mining, forestry and machining work – can lead to deadly diseases such as black lung, silicosis and asthma, which is why Volckens is going to develop methods for measuring it.

Four-year study

In August, he received two grants worth $2.5 million from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health – a division of the Centers for Disease Control – to spend the next four years measuring these particles.

He plans to develop a dust spectrometer that will capture and measure inhalable dust – about the size of flour dust – before it settles. He’ll also create an inexpensive, lightweight device that workers could wear on their shoulders to immediately sample their exposure.

“If you took a handful of flour and threw it into the air, it would settle on the ground and you could see it – we don’t have good means to measure those inhalable particles accurately to give companies and workers information about their exposure,” said Volckens, associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences within the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“They’re the same types of particles that make your eyes itchy, your throat itchy. They deposit in your nose and mouth and you swallow them, so they can become a big problem,” he said. “Exposures that last one to two minutes can affect you for hours or days. And workers that get exposed to these clouds every day might have long-term effects. That’s the kind of thing we’re trying to prevent – we’re trying to prevent disease over the working lifetime of individuals.”

Improving health and safety

The effort builds on a current project Volckens has with Stephen Reynolds, director of the High Plains Intermountain Center for Agricultural Health & Safety at CSU.

Local dairy and feedlot industries are lending support to the project, saying they are “committed to the development of best practices to improve the health and productivity of our workers and livestock.”

“At Aurora Organic Farms, we are always mindful of the working conditions for our employees, so we are happy to participate in this study with Colorado State University,” said Juan Velez, Senior Vice President of Farm Operations at Aurora Organic Farms. “We look forward to hearing more about Dr. Volckens’ technology and assisting as we can.”

Lowering cost of exposure tests

Another issue Volckens will address with the grants is lowering the cost of current exposure tests, which are cost-prohibitive for most companies. He wants to create a simple test that anyone can use – like thermometers, a technology that was once expensive but now universally affordable. For this aspect of the research he is partnering with Chuck Henry, a professor of chemistry at Colorado State.

“You don’t need to go to the doctor to have your temperature taken,” he said. “We want that sample test to be under $1. The process now can cost hundreds of dollars to even take a single measurement, and it’s inhibiting our ability to find out where there are exposure problems in industry.

“We want to revolutionize the field by letting anyone take a sample,” Volckens added. “This research will really increase our reach to find hazards and protect people.”

Volckens is collaborating on the project with colleagues at the University of Iowa and the University of Utah. Scientists at the University of Iowa will run computer models to design a dust sampler that best mimics particle inhalation into the human nose and mouth. In Utah, they’ll evaluate the design in a state-of-the-art aerosol wind tunnel before moving into the field to test these technologies in various industrial settings.


Contact: Emily Wilmsen
E-mail: Emily.Wilmsen@colostate.edu
Phone: (970) 491-2336