Biological monitoring of occupational exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in prebake smelting

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Biological monitoring of occupational exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in prebake smelting

Queensland University of Technology
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons
  • Personal Monitoring
  • 1-Hydroxypyrene
  • Biological Monitoring
  • Smelting
  • Prebake
  • Benzene-Soluble Fraction
  • Coal Tar Pitch Volatiles
  • Anode Plant


In 1984, the International Agency for Research on Cancer determined that working in the primary aluminium production process was associated with exposure to certain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are probably carcinogenic to humans. Key sources of PAH exposure within the occupational environment of a prebake aluminium smelter are processes associated with use of coal-tar pitch. Despite the potential for exposure via inhalation, ingestion and dermal adsorption, to date occupational exposure limits exist only for airborne contaminants. This study, based at a prebake aluminium smelter in Queensland, Australia, compares exposures of workers who came in contact with PAHs from coal-tar pitch in the smelter’s anode plant (n = 69) and cell-reconstruction area (n = 28), and a non-production control group (n = 17). Literature relevant to PAH exposures in industry and methods of monitoring and assessing occupational hazards associated with these compounds are reviewed, and methods relevant to PAH exposure are discussed in the context of the study site. The study utilises air monitoring of PAHs to quantify exposure via the inhalation route and biological monitoring of 1-hydroxypyrene (1-OHP) in urine of workers to assess total body burden from all routes of entry. Exposures determined for similar exposure groups, sampled over three years, are compared with published occupational PAH exposure limits and/or guidelines. Results of paired personal air monitoring samples and samples collected for 1-OHP in urine monitoring do not correlate. Predictive ability of the benzene-soluble fraction (BSF) in personal air monitoring in relation to the 1-OHP levels in urine is poor (adjusted R2 < 1%) even after adjustment for potential confounders of smoking status and use of personal protective equipment. For static air BSF levels in the anode plant, the median was 0.023 mg/m3 (range 0.002–0.250), almost twice as high as in the cell-reconstruction area (median = 0.013 mg/m3, range 0.003–0.154). In contrast, median BSF personal exposure in the anode plant was 0.036 mg/m3 (range 0.003–0.563), significantly lower than the median measured in the reconstruction area (0.054 mg/m3, range 0.003–0.371) (p = 0.041). The observation that median 1-OHP levels in urine were significantly higher in the anode plant than in the reconstruction area (6.62 µmol/mol creatinine, range 0.09–33.44 and 0.17 µmol/mol creatinine, range 0.001–2.47, respectively) parallels the static air measurements of BSF rather than the personal air monitoring results (p < 0.001). Results of air measurements and biological monitoring show that tasks associated with paste mixing and anode forming in the forming area of the anode plant resulted in higher PAH exposure than tasks in the non-forming areas; median 1-OHP levels in urine from workers in the forming area (14.20 µmol/mol creatinine, range 2.02–33.44) were almost four times higher than those obtained from workers in the non-forming area (4.11 µmol/mol creatinine, range 0.09–26.99; p < 0.001). Results justify use of biological monitoring as an important adjunct to existing measures of PAH exposure in the aluminium industry. Although monitoring of 1-OHP in urine may not be an accurate measure of biological effect on an individual, it is a better indicator of total PAH exposure than BSF in air. In January 2005, interim study results prompted a plant management decision to modify control measures to reduce skin exposure. Comparison of 1-OHP in urine from workers pre- and post-modifications showed substantial downward trends. Exposure via the dermal route was identified as a contributor to overall dose. Reduction in 1-OHP urine concentrations achieved by reducing skin exposure demonstrate the importance of exposure via this alternative pathway. Finally, control measures are recommended to ameliorate risk associated with PAH exposure in the primary aluminium production process, and suggestions for future research include development of methods capable of more specifically monitoring carcinogenic constituents of PAH mixtures, such as benzo[a]pyrene.

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