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Airborne fiberglass dust hazards & the role of particle size in particle detection as well as in health risk assessment: this article provides information about fiberglass fragments and indoor air quality fiberglass contamination issues in residential and light-commercial buildings.
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Also see Fiberglass Detection in Building Air for a discussion of the role of particle size in fiberglass detection in building air and dust samples. Also see Fiberglass Insulation Exposure Limits and see PARTICLE SIZES & IAQ.
A Guide to Large versus Very Small Fiberglass Fragments in Building Dust
In our page top photo of fiberglass insulation fragments collected in an indoor air sample, you can see not only a large and typical fiberglass insulation strand with its characteristic colored resin binder. You can also spot much smaller fiberglass fragments.
When a forensic laboratory is asked to screen dust or air samples for fiberglass, depending on the lab's protocols it's not certain that fibers of both large dimension and small fiber fragments will both be reported.
Small glass fiber fragments are easily "lost" in other non-fungal granular debris in building dust. We posit that studies of the level of airborne fiberglass in buildings may be faulty if the methods used to screen for fiberglass fragments do not include small, even sub-micron particles along with the common large particles.
Most buildings Probably have Mostly Large Fiberglass Fragments - Some Have Sub-Micron Fragments of Fiberglass Dust
Our field and lab experience suggest that while we find fiberglass in nearly all modern indoor environmental dust, the common particles are usually long and large (and presumed less of a health risk than very small particles).
However in environments where fiberglass insulation is old, damaged by foot traffic, handling, pests such as mice, or where it was chopped or disturbed, on occasion we find high levels of very small, even sub-micron fiberglass particles.
We may also find an elevated level of small fiberglass insulation fragments in buildings or in the HVAC system of buildings where fiberglass-lined HVAC ductwork has been mechanically cleaned - a process that can loosen and damage the fiberglass liner. We have also found high levels of fiberglass fragments in indoor air and dust in buildings where amateur do-it-yourself return air ducts were constructed using conventional fiberglass insulating batts as a "duct" liner (photo, above-left).
Therefore a first level of inspection for this hazard starts with the age of the building and the visual determination of the condition of its insulation.
Fiberglass fragments are inorganic material typically from fiberglass insulation; depending on their size and quantity these may be a respiratory irritant or may contribute to more serious health concerns.
The presence of incidental fibers in buildings is common. The Association of Man-made Mineral Fiber Producers asserted to the US EPA in 1992 that a study at that time " does not provide evidence of significant adverse health effects following inhalation of glass fiber." ("Respirable Fibrous Glass Chronic Multidose Inhalation Study-Preliminary Final Results," TIMA, 4 May 1992 delivered to U.S. EPA by hand.) The Seventh Annual Report on Carcinogens (June 1994) lists glass fibers of respirable size as a substance "reasonably anticipated to cause cancer in humans."
DJF Opinion: Caution about fiberglass fragment size: when reading studies about airborne fiberglass, pay close attention to the methods used to collect samples and the methods used to identify and count fiberglass particle fragments. For example, some counting devices or microscopic methods exclude all particles below a give size by the choice of instrument or counting method itself. See Lab Identification of Fiberglass for details.
Deciding not to look for very small particles (which if present may be the more harmful ones) or using a methodology that excludes them means that study is not going to find them even if they in fact were dominant by number or even total volume in a sample.
It is possible that small fiberglass particles in air may constitute a meaningful health risk (obviously depending on the overall exposure level) which has not been explored. It seems reasonable to me to suggest that that prudent avoidance of fiberglass dust would be appropriate. Improper cleaning or treatment of fiberglass ducts with biocides and particularly, mechanical cleaning that can damage the fiberglass lining HVAC ducts may in fact increase rather than decrease indoor air quality problems in a building, particularly if occupants have other respiratory or pulmonary concerns/vulnerabilities.
See Glass Wool Fibers Expert Panel Report, Part B - Recommendation for Listing Status for Glass Wool Fibers and Scientific Justification for the Recommendation" for a 2009 update on the carcinogenicity of fiberglass fragments.
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