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Are Laser Printers A Health Hazard?

We all know that work environments can be hazardous to our mental health -- but our physical health, as well?

If you factor out the chokingly heavy cologne worn by the guy in the next cubicle or the suspiciously wrapped packages in the back of the communal fridge, what else could be detrimental to your overall health?

A report out this week from the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, showed that certain laser printers emit high concentrations of tiny particles into the air. Those particles can be inhaled and cause long-term lung damage.

"Because these particles are so small, there is a very high probability for these particles to deposit in the deepest alveoli in the lung … from there they can enter the bloodstream," said Lidia Morawska, the scientist who co-authored the study, which appears in this month's online issue of the American Chemical Society's Environmental Science & Technology.

The Saturday Early Show asked Dr. Mallika Marshall to analyze whether those printers pose an immediate threat.

According to Marshall, "Researchers in Australia spent 48 hours monitoring the air inside and outside an office space in a well-ventilated and air conditioned building. They found that concentration of particles were five times higher inside the office during work hours than during off hours."

The source of the particles were laser printers. "When they analyzed the 62 printers themselves, they found that 37 of them had no particle emissions at all, but 17 of them had high emission and actually released as many particles as a lit cigarette," according to Marshall. The specific problem was linked to the dry toner used by some machines.

There might be long-term implications for people who sat close to their printers or used them frequently. "The theoretical concern is also that because these ultrafine particles could deposit in the small air sacs in the lung and then enter the bloodstream, they could trigger changes in blood vessels that could promote heart disease or even carry cancer-causing toxins," said Marshall. "But this is something that needs to be further investigated."

Until the ramifications are understood, it would be smart to move your printer to a well-ventilated area.

There are other indoor pollutants found in homes and offices that could be just as harmful, she notes.

For instance, mold "can wreak havoc on people with sensitivities to mold or people with asthma. There are a number of places in your home that can be a breeding ground for mold. One of the biggest mold offenders is your humidifier. So replace the water often and clean it out with soap and water on a regular basis. Wet carpeting can also harbor mold so keep your carpets clean and dry," she said.

Other hazards:

  • Radon Gas -- "is a radioactive material that exists in soils and rock and is a leading cause of lung cancer. It can be found in basements and crawl spaces. But it's colorless and odorless, so you should have your home test for it."
  • Asbestos -- "Asbestos was used widely as insulation between the 1950's and 1970's and it is a known cancer-causing agent. If you have asbestos around your pipes, it should be changed…but if you have it in tiles in your ceiling, you should probably leave it alone because the act of trying to remove it will release asbestos into the air."
  • Cleaning products -- "Many cleaning products contain hazardous materials. So whenever you use them, do so in a ventilated area. And don't mix products unless you know what you're doing because mixing something like ammonia and bleach together produces chlorine gas which is toxic."
  • Wood-burning stoves -- "A wood-burning stove that isn't properly ventilated can emit particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide which can cause problems for people with lung diseases," said Marshall.
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