Are the risks of the domestic and the workplace environments different?

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This book deals with the risks of the general environment rather than the work environment. Those include the state of natural and man-made environment, chemicals, food and drinking water, and the possible risks involved with using them. The difference between the general environment and work environment is not always qualitative. The difference may only be in the level of exposure. A good example is hairdressing. Hairdressers seem to have a risk of cancer because of their occupation. This is probably due to the chemicals used in their work such as hair dyes. The customer is obviously exposed to exactly the same chemicals, but his/her exposure is only occasional whereas hairdressers are exposed every day, and thus the risk is only apparent in hairdressers.


Exposure routes in the general environment are the gastrointestinal tract, airways and skin in this rank order. In the working environment, eating and drinking are not major routes and may even be forbidden, so they are not very important. It is worth remembering that poor hygiene may lead to exposure of heavy metals, carcinogenic chemicals or microbes during the lunch hour or at home after the working day. Some poisonings have been described even in children, when lead or other toxic compounds were carried home from the workplace in their father’s clothes.

In many occupations, the respiratory tract is the crucial route of absorption of chemicals as it is also for microbes and organic dusts. Even exposure through the skin may be important, not only causing contact allergies, but also as an exposure route evoking general toxicity. A good example is pesticide use in greenhouses. Workers may be exposed to orders of magnitude higher amounts of pesticides through their skin as compared with the residues to which consumers are exposed by eating the products in their food.

Exposure levels

Exposures in the workplace are often much higher than those in the living environment. In the factory, solvent concentrations are much higher than outside the factory. Moreover the exposure may be continuous while it is only occasional outside. In a bakery, the baker is exposed to flour dust continuously while at home the housewife may bake once a week. A welder may be exposed to a multitude of metal fumes, and the clothes of a car mechanic may be soiled with old lubricants. Cattle herdsmen work within the clouds of dust of animal hair and scurf. Consequently quite a lot information has been collected about the occupational environment, and this can be useful in estimating the effects in the general environment even though exposures may be ten or even a hundred times lower.

Risk groups

The work environment does not provide data about everything. Usually children are excluded, except for schools and day-care centres that are workplaces for teachers but the general environment for children. The work environment means there are no elderly people, and in some occupations there are no women. If these are the risk groups for a certain exposure, then the information is not available from this source.

Risk levels

Somewhat higher risk levels are usually accepted in the work environment than in the general environment. Increasing standard of living and improved occupational hygiene have decreased the difference. In the developed countries, one cannot imagine the risks that existed even a few decades ago in the coal mines. However, these terrible conditions are still with us, especially in the rapidly industrializing countries such as China.

Asbestos is a good example of changes in attitudes in most countries. The very high risk of pulmonary cancers was due to extremely high exposures in the past. The indoor air in a factory was sometimes misty because of the asbestos fibres. It is not reasonable to imagine that the present low numbers of asbestos fibres in the air would be a significant cause of cancer.

It is not always true that occupational risks are higher than environmental risks. Radiation control is presently so strict that occupational risks associated with radiation are minimal. In houses situated in uranium-rich regions, indoor radon may cause radiation exposure levels that would not be permitted in any occupation. No laboratory workers would be allowed to use benzene as carelessly as car drivers use it at a petrol station.[1] Lately occupational regulation has been adopted in some countries to limit customer smoking in restaurants on the basis of preserving the workers’ health, even though the exposure of the person smoking the cigarette is of course far higher than that of the waiter.

There are both qualitative and quantitative differences between the work environment and living environment. Occupational risks are not dealt with in this book.

Notes and references

One level up: Perception of the risks around us

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