, Volume 15, Issue 5, pp 417-430
Date: 20 May 2008

Characterisation of urban inhalation exposures to benzene, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde in the European Union

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Abstract

Background, aim and scope

All across Europe, people live and work in indoor environments. On average, people spend around 90% of their time indoors (homes, workplaces, cars and public transport means, etc.) and are exposed to a complex mixture of pollutants at concentration levels that are often several times higher than outdoors. These pollutants are emitted by different sources indoors and outdoors and include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbonyls (aldehydes and ketones) and other chemical substances often adsorbed on particles. Moreover, legal obligations opposed by legislations, such as the European Union’s General Product Safety Directive (GPSD) and Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), increasingly require detailed understanding of where and how chemical substances are used throughout their life-cycle and require better characterisation of their emissions and exposure. This information is essential to be able to control emissions from sources aiming at a reduction of adverse health effects. Scientifically sound human risk assessment procedures based on qualitative and quantitative human exposure information allows a better characterisation of population exposures to chemical substances. In this context, the current paper compares inhalation exposures to three health-based EU priority substances, i.e. benzene, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.

Materials and methods

Distributions of urban population inhalation exposures, indoor and outdoor concentrations were created on the basis of measured AIRMEX data in 12 European cities and compared to results from existing European population exposure studies published within the scientific literature. By pooling all EU city personal exposure, indoor and outdoor concentration means, representative EU city cumulative frequency distributions were created. Population exposures were modelled with a microenvironment model using the time spent and concentrations in four microenvironments, i.e. indoors at home and at work, outdoors at work and in transit, as input parameters. Pooled EU city inhalation exposures were compared to modelled population exposures. The contributions of these microenvironments to the total daily inhalation exposure of formaldehyde, benzene and acetaldehyde were estimated. Inhalation exposures were compared to the EU annual ambient benzene air quality guideline (5 μg/m3—to be met by 2010) and the recommended (based on the INDEX project) 30-min average formaldehyde limit value (30 μg/m3).

Results

Indoor inhalation exposure contributions are much higher compared to the outdoor or in-transit microenvironment contributions, accounting for almost 99% in the case of formaldehyde. The highest in-transit exposure contribution was found for benzene; 29.4% of the total inhalation exposure contribution. Comparing the pooled AIRMEX EU city inhalation exposures with the modelled exposures, benzene, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde exposures are 5.1, 17.3 and 11.8 μg/m3 vs. 5.1, 20.1 and 10.2 μg/m3, respectively. Together with the fact that a dominating fraction of time is spent indoors (>90%), the total inhalation exposure is mostly driven by the time spent indoors.

Discussion

The approach used in this paper faced three challenges concerning exposure and time–activity data, comparability and scarce or missing in-transit data inducing careful interpretation of the results. The results obtained by AIRMEX underline that many European urban populations are still exposed to elevated levels of benzene and formaldehyde in the inhaled air. It is still likely that the annual ambient benzene air quality guideline of 5 μg/m3 in the EU and recommended formaldehyde 30-min average limit value of 30 μg/m3 are exceeded by a substantial part of populations living in urban areas. Considering multimedia and multi-pathway exposure to acetaldehyde, the biggest exposure contribution was found to be related to dietary behaviour rather than to inhalation.

Conclusions

In the present study, inhalation exposures of urban populations were assessed on the basis of novel and existing exposure data. The indoor residential microenvironment contributed most to the total daily urban population inhalation exposure. The results presented in this paper suggest that a significant part of the populations living in European cities exceed the annual ambient benzene air quality guideline of 5 μg/m3 in the EU and recommended (INDEX project) formaldehyde 30-min average limit value of 30 μg/m3.

Recommendations and perspectives

To reduce exposures and consequent health effects, adequate measures must be taken to diminish emissions from sources such as materials and products that especially emit benzene and formaldehyde in indoor air. In parallel, measures can be taken aiming at reducing the outdoor pollution contribution indoors. Besides emission reduction, mechanisms to effectively monitor and manage the indoor air quality should be established. These mechanisms could be developed by setting up appropriate EU indoor air guidelines.

Responsible editor: Kees van Leeuwen