Sitting next to an office printer could be as bad for your health as passive smoking, according to new research.
Researchers at the International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, tested the emissions from 62 laser printers and found that 27% of them emitted high levels of particulate pollution when in use.
Lidia Morawska and her colleagues focused on particles less than a micrometre in diameter. These are not easily filtered out by the lungs and are suspected of causing long-term health problems.
The researchers had set out to see how varying levels of outdoor particulate pollution affected the environment inside an office building. They expected pollution levels indoors to be much better. But they found that, during work hours, it was significantly worse – three times worse at its highest.
They identified the cause as some types of printer, and tested the air quality near different machines in an office setting, and also in an isolation chamber. The worst-emitting printer created particulate pollution roughly equivalent to that produced by an average cigarette smoker, and the researchers say (See Dust to dust). “Certainly it looks like it could be a very high risk,” Morawska says.
Although the researchers have not yet conducted a thorough chemical analysis, it seems likely that the particles come from toner – the black dust-like material that laser printers use to produce images on the paper.
However, not all printers were equally bad. In fact, 60% of them emitted no particles at all. Eight of the printers tested emitted only low or medium levels of particulates, but 13 were “high emitters”. There was also no clear indication that any specific brand was worse than another.
Morawska concedes that more studies need to be done to prove a health risk. However, if the results hold up, she says governments could consider regulating the particulate emissions levels on laser printers.
What Are the Dangers of Sitting Next to a Copy Machine?
The inventions that make our lives more comfortable in the office may cause health problems with continued exposure to the environment created by these machines. Most photocopiers use a technique called xerography that sends a positive electric charge to a drum inside the machine that imprints an image on the drum. Paper then is passed through the drum creating an image. The process creates heat, discharges particles into the air and can emit ultraviolet radiation into the local environment.
Photocopiers emit ozone into the air, which is the main reason you should not sit next to a copier at work. Fitting an activated carbon filter to the exhaust manifold in the copier can trap ozone before it gets into the office, but proper maintenance of the filter is necessary to reduce ozone levels. Ozone gives off a distinct odour that you might recognize if you have ever been in a lightning storm. High levels of ozone and continued exposure can irritate the eyes and respiratory tract.
One of the most common concerns among office workers is the consequences of exposure to ozone.
Firstly, ozone is a naturally occurring form of oxygen (O3) found in the Earth’s atmosphere. This colourless gas has a distinct odour and due to its highly reactive and unstable nature, at room temperature, decomposes quickly to oxygen.
Secondly, it is produced whenever oxygen reacts with sufficient ultraviolet radiation or electrical discharge. This includes events such as lightning storms.
Lastly, ozone is used to improve air quality in offices using its bacteria inhibiting properties. It is used in very small quantities and carries no health risks.
The ozone produced by working with a photocopier poses no threat unless it builds up as a result of negligence when placing the machine in a small, badly ventilated room. Usually, manufacturers provide recommendations that must be followed by whoever installs the photocopier, thus preventing any breach of the Occupational Exposure Standards (OES).
According to a report issued by the North Carolina Department of Labor, copy machines can contribute to indoor air pollution. Contaminants include methyl alcohol from spirit duplicators, ammonia and acetic acid from blueprint copiers and ozone from photocopiers. Powder from toner used in dry copiers can escape from the copier and get into the air. These contaminants can cause issues for healthy people and can prove especially harmful to people with respiratory problems. The most common symptoms include coughing and sneezing. Some toners contain carcinogenic properties that could negatively affect your health.
During the process of creating copies, both visible and ultraviolet light emits from the lamp in a photocopier. In most instances, the ultraviolet light doesn't go beyond the glass plate in the copier. Closing the lid while making copies reduces the risk of exposure to ultraviolet light. While not considered harmful, ultraviolet light emitted from machines may cause eyestrain if you continually look at the light while making copies.
Ventilation and Noise
Using a dedicated copy room with adequate ventilation reduces the number of contaminants in the air and improves indoor air quality. Copiers produce noise and can raise the temperature of a room, which can increase stress on nearby workers. When possible, you should avoid sitting next to a copier. Don't place copiers in a carpeted room, because dust and pollutants are trapped in the fibres. Use a HEPA air filter or exhaust system to remove contaminants from the air and provide enough space around the machine to allow for proper dissipation of heat.
Toner used by photocopiers and laser printers in the printing process is another common concern. It is an excellent powder, which is not dangerous to health. As with all dust, however, it may cause irritation of the respiratory system if one is exposed to a high concentration of it.
The main ingredient in the toner is carbon black. This is:
- mildly toxic - though some impurities in toners may be carcinogenic. As currently manufactured, carbon blacks contain extremely low levels of impurities and do not warrant concern regarding health effects;
- a respiratory irritant;
- may cause eye irritation.
Laser Printed Data
The most common reason for toner exposure involves accidents during cartridge renewal. In those cases, the toner may become airborne. Although it is considered nothing more than nuisance dust and has no health effects other than irritation, people who are highly sensitive to dust particles or have a medical condition (e.g. asthma, bronchitis) are advised to avoid changing toner cartridges.
In case of spillage, the best practice is to vacuum the dust as carefully as possible in order to avoid creating a dust cloud.
Carbon black is a powder used as a pigment and can comprise between 5-10% of toner. Years ago, Swedish scientists raised the concern that it may be carcinogenic, thus forcing the manufacturers of carbon black to change their production process. In 2010, the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that there is inadequate evidence to conclude that carbon black is carcinogenic to humans.
Electric and magnetic fields
As with all other electrical equipment, photocopiers create an extremely low-frequency magnetic field. According to the IARC, there is inadequate evidence of said fields increasing cancer risk in adults.
Light and Ultraviolet Light
Photocopiers emit both visible and invisible (ultraviolet) light. For that reason, they are equipped with a glass plate that stops any harmful invisible rays, while the visible light is well below the permissible exposure level. It is advisable, however, to keep the lid closed while copying. If that is not possible, simply look away from the light source or use an automatic document feeder.
Noise and Heat
While noise and heat are not hazardous per se, they do cause stress and fatigue in the office. You can read Market Inspector’s guide to choosing the right business printer and get help with deciding what fits your needs best.
Once you have your printer, it is important to follow the recommendations of the manufacturer and installer so as not to create excessive noise and heat pollution.
Nowadays, laser printers have all the necessary safety mechanisms to protect the user from the laser beam. Therefore these machines are considered non-hazardous.
In conclusion, as long as one follows the rules and guidelines provided by the manufacturer and installer of the photocopier, and applies common sense when working with the machine, the slight risks to health can be avoided.
Other health hazards
Besides ozone gas and toner dust, there are other health hazards associated with photocopiers.
Photocopiers are oh-so-essential in the modern office. But as we focus on the machines’ sleek design, high-performance functionality and good quality printing, we neglect to consider how potentially risky they can be – to our health.
Workers are using these office machines every single day. Yet not many realise that, under certain circumstances, they can bring on health problems, especially in those with pre-existing respiratory conditions.
Selenium is a photoconductive coating applied to the photocopying drum. If the photocopier overheats during operation, it may cause this coating to degenerate. Exposure to selenium is generally accompanied by a metallic taste in the mouth, and a garlic-smelling breath. Long periods of exposure can cause fatigue, insomnia, poor concentration, as well as upper respiratory tract disorders, and irritation of the eyes and lips. The good news is that selenium exposure is rare, and can be successfully treated.
The photoconductive material in photocopiers is usually selenium. Cadmium sulphide, zinc oxide and organic polymers are also used. Trace amounts of these materials can become airborne. However, under normal operation, the concentrations of these pollutants are well below those associated with health effects.
Carbon monoxide gas
When a photocopier is placed in a poorly ventilated environment, it can emit carbon monoxide, a deadly, colourless, odourless and poisonous gas. Initial symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can include headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea and dizziness.
After hours of direct exposure, the intense light used in photocopying may cause eye irritation and after-imaging. The photocopier cover should be closed before copying. Alternatively, operators should avert their eyes from the light source.
Don’t sit next to the photocopier.
Researchers have now pinpointed one of the biggest risks for a heart attack – air pollution. Polluted air contains particles of dust and soot less than ten microns wide (one micron is a millionth of a meter) which get into the lungs and cause inflammation.
Poor air quality – outdoors and indoors – has been linked to strokes, heart attacks, cancer, and aggravate respiratory conditions such as asthma.
Here are some tips to reduce your exposure to indoor and outdoor pollutants.
- Take measures to have cleaner indoor air. Avoid plug-in or aerosol air fresheners and open the window or use a high-quality air purifier with activated carbon and HEPA;
- Cut down on scented household products (cleaning agents and personal body care);
- Place certain plants throughout the house.
- Watch out for VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that can be emitted by carpets, treated fabrics, furniture, TV screens, glues and paints. Again, an air purifier with activated carbon can help with chemical and odour control.
- Common office photocopy machines with wet toner emit very high levels of VOCs, so ask to be moved if you sit near one at work.
- If you work with chemicals or harmful substances, make sure all safety measures are in place and you are protected accurately.
- Avoid busy streets – Opt for side streets whenever possible, parks and routes with lots of trees. This applies to drivers, pedestrians, joggers and cyclists;
- Walk on the inside of the sidewalk;
- Don’t be afraid of “bad” weather: Windy conditions mean lower air pollution, and rain washes the pollutants away. Hot, humid days present a challenge for the body – if you want to go for a run, do it in the morning.
Electrocorp is a leading manufacturer of high-quality air purifiers in North America and offers a combination of deep bed carbon filters and particle filters for complete air purification solutions. For more information about industrial air filtration or home and office air purification, contact one of our air quality experts.
Should we be worried?
A Federal Government-commissioned study looking at ultrafine particles from combustion and vehicle exhausts found evidence that high levels of these particles can bring on asthma attacks in people with the condition and worsen heart disease.
However, the large-scale studies that are really needed to answer these questions about safety have not been done. Because of this, the World Health Organisation has not issued any guidelines on safe levels of ultrafine particles.
Also, the ultrafine particles from laser printers are chemically different from the ones investigated in the Government study, so they may not have the same effects on our bodies.
Safe Work Australia has commissioned two projects to specifically examine potential health risks from laser printer emissions. The reports are expected to be available on the organisation's website in the coming months.
So with no clear guidance on how to handle this potential risk from laser printers, what – if anything – should we be doing?
Well, Morawska suggests erring on the side of caution, and has these tips to minimise exposure to the ultrafine particles associated with laser printers:
Make sure the office is well-ventilated with air from outside.
If possible, locate heavily-used printers in well-ventilated areas, away from people.
Avoid standing over the printer as it prints.
If you are sitting next to a heavily-used printer, consider asking for you or the printer to move.
People with asthma or heart disease would be best advised not to sit near busy printers.
Where Should A Photocopier Be Placed
Where should photocopiers be placed is not such an innocent question as it may seem. Photocopiers can be hazardous devices, and caution should apply. In fact, universities and local government departments around the world have issued guidelines so that photocopiers should be places at the most appropriate location in an office.
The following recommendations have been issued:
- Photocopiers should be placed in well-ventilated areas: this means that at least 50cm of space should be left on both sides of the photocopier, and behind the photocopier and at least 72cm space at the front or even 172cm if the area is used as a thoroughfare;
- To prevent users from possible injuries, office staff should not sit within 4 metres of the photocopier;
- Photocopiers should be placed in a rather big room, with 45 cubic metres as a safe estimate;
- Heavy-duty photocopiers should be placed in specific, separate rooms with mechanical ventilation;
- Caution should also apply regarding other elements, such as:
- Noise and heat produced by the photocopiers, which can cause fatigue and stress, photocopiers should therefore be placed in areas where these nuisances can have the least possible effect;
- Regular cleaning and maintenance should also be taken care of;
- Extra care should be applied when replacing toners or refilling them;
- Safe disposal of consumables should also be taken care of.
Frequently Asked Questions
You can check your printer manual for this, but as a general rule, you need toner for laser printers and ink cartridges for inkjet printers.
Here's a quick and simple answer: Ink cartridges are expensive so companies can make a profit. Most printers are sold at a loss. A manufacturer makes money NOT by selling consumers an inkjet or laser printer, but by selling the supplies needed to print. The manufacturer controls the technology and the prices.
To use a printer with your laptop, you must first set it up. A few laptops still feature a printer port, but most use a regular USB port. Plug in the printer, and ensure that it's turned off. ... Connect a USB cable to the printer and to your laptop.