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Sunday, 06 March 2011 08:00
It’s a little known fact that photocopiers can affect health. The increasingly sleek plastic exteriors and the ever-expanding level of functionality on photocopiers, hide for many what is in fact a potentially risky, high temperature chemical process taking place every time a page is printed. The electrostatic reactions which are at the heart of what a photocopier does, produce ozone, a type of oxygen molecule known to be harmful to human health. Toners may contain chemicals such as carbon black which are also hazardous and toner dust, whatever its composition, can be a respiratory irritant and is generally classified as a ‘nuisance’ substance. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) may also be emitted in the photocopying process, exposure to which is harmful. But modern photocopiers are by no means a ‘death trap’. With the right equipment, maintenance and adequate ventilation, photocopiers shouldn’t pose any significant health risks. Having said that, the safety of a photocopier should never be seen as a taken-for-granted fact. If devices are left unmonitored, misplaced or poorly maintained, they can pose a health risk, bellying the image many of us have of them as unshakeable office workhorses. This article aims to outline the potential health risks of photocopiers and what can be done to keep your office environment as safe as possible.
Ozone is a naturally occurring gas produced by the rays of the sun and by lighting. In basic scientific terms, it is an oxygen molecule composed of three oxygen atoms – O3. It is present in the air at typical concentrations of between 0.002 and 0.05 parts per million (ppm). Ozone is also produced by many devices which involve electrostatic processes, such as in the motors of household hoovers or in the processes that take place on the drums of many photocopiers. Ozone decomposes relatively quickly into oxygen, given that it decomposes by half in around five minutes in an office environment. Most countries do impose regulations for occupational exposure to hazardous substances and in Britain the Occupational Exposure Limit (OEL) for ozone is 0.2 ppm.
But even at levels like these and notwithstanding the relatively low half-life of ozone, exposure to the gas, even at apparently safe OEL levels can have some ill effects. Ozone can irritate the eyes nose and throat, even at concentrations of half the OEL. Significantly though, a Danish study a number of years ago showed that ozone levels in the workplace environment could be increased if devices were not correctly maintained (due to increased electrostatic ‘sparking’) or were in high humidity environments and its harmful effects on health (mice were used in the tests) were more pronounced when ozone would be in contact with certain types of furnishings. At higher concentrations of between 1 and 2 ppm, ozone can cause quite severe headaches, cheat pains and even extreme fatigue.
When buying a photocopier, it’s advisable to choose a device from a leading, reputable manufacturer and ensure you choose a respected supplier when it comes to servicing and maintenance. Users should also consult the Product Safety Data Sheets (PSDS) for the photocopier they buy which provide full information of associated risks, siting guidelines and emissions levels. As a rule, photocopiers should be placed in well-ventilated areas where exhausts do not pass over workers and when placed in combination with other devices, an environmental assessment may be necessary to ensure emissions do not exceed safe levels. Most modern photocopiers do feature air filters and air flow systems which can significantly reduce ozone emissions well below the OEL. Some photocopiers now also feature ‘direct charge’, which charge the photocopier drum directly and avoid the high voltage air exchange which creates ozone. On photocopiers with higher output speeds it is not always possible to employ ‘direct charge’ technology, so manufacturers will often supply devices with higher grade ‘catalytic’ filters rather than the more standard charcoal filters which are typically used.
Regular servicing of photocopiers and photocopier filter changes ensures that internal dust levels do not increase electrostatic activity and result in extra ozone emissions. Again, good ventilation and high quality filters should limit this.
Toner can be released from photocopier vents and where equipment is poorly maintained, it can back up from the waste compartment and will be emitted from a photocopier in greater amounts. Most toners used in photocopiers today contain few hazardous substances. All substances used in Canon photocopiers toners for instance, have been assured negative in the Ames test, a screening test for carcinogenicity. But toners do often contain amounts of up to 7% carbon black, known to be a nuisance dust which can irritate the skin and airways. If heated in a low oxygen atmosphere, carbon monoxide can be produced from carbon black which can cause headaches, drowsiness, faintness and increased pulse rates. Again regular maintenance of photocopiers and good ventilation would appear to be key.
Similar to ozone in its origins and effects, nitrogen oxide is produced when there is a high voltage discharge in the air. In terms of its effects on health, again they are almost identical to carbon monoxide at the lower end of the spectrum causing headaches and an increased pulse rate.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s)
During the high temperature fixing process and the charging of materials on the photocopiers drum, certain volatile organic compounds may be released. Whilst on modern photocopiers drum coating materials have also been tested for carcinogenicity and found negative on the Ames test, some coatings and their emissions can be an irritant. VOC emissions from older photocopiers where safety standards were not typically so high, have been known to include carcinogens such as decane, benzene and others compounds such as trichloroethane, isocoate, toluene and xylene which can also cause respiratory problems, skin irritations and fatigue. Again, good ventilation, regular photocopier maintenance and high quality filtration systems, where available, are crucial.
While well-maintained, up-to-date photocopiers should not pose health risks when placed correctly, studies have shown that poor photocopier maintenance, high humidity can push ozone levels in particular on some photocopiers to potentially hazardous levels. This is equally true for toner dust emissions and nitrogen oxide where poor maintenance can result in higher than normal discharges. Photocopier safety in recent years has come on a long way. Relatively low output photocopiers have been fitted with direct charge units which practically eliminate ozone gas emissions. Ozone producing photocopiers have been equipped with a much higher standard of filtration units which can significantly cut ozone output as well as other emissions. Efforts to reduce carcinogens mean that now almost all photocopiers feature Ames-negative drum photo-chemicals, so this is now much less of a concern as well.
But for all the considerable value of these advances in safety standards, all that technology can be effectively undermined when care and attention lapses. No matter how advanced the safety features on photocopiers becomes, photocopier buyers/users must always remain aware of the potential safety risks. Placement, ventilation and regular maintenance are absolutely key and in larger deployments or placement in more confined poorly ventilated areas, professional environmental assessments may be advisable.
For further information on photocopier safety, contact any accredited Canon Business Solution Partner.
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