All indoor environments hold potential for risk to the people working inside of them. Indoor growing environments are no exception. A major concern for employees working in indoor growing spaces is exposure to biological hazards such as fungus and bacteria, pesticides/fungicides, silica and other chemical exposures.
Common to indoor growing environments is fungal exposure, often from mold. Breathing mold can lead to serious health issues. Early exposure symptoms often include headaches, dizziness, fatigue, breathing difficulty, skin irritation and more. Prolonged exposure can lead to allergic reactions, aggravated asthma symptoms, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and more. Even when dead, mold still poses a health risk. Damp environments can also attract a wide range of bacteria. Exposure to this bacteria can produce similar symptoms to that of mold exposure as well as lead to more advanced health problems.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines Particulate Matter (PM) or particulate pollution as a mix of solid particles or liquid droplets that are suspended in the air. These particles widely range in size and type and can include everything from smoke and ash to microscopic particles. Regardless of what type or chemical makeup of a particle or liquid droplet, the EPA has placed restrictions on exposure to different sizes of particles. Two groups of particle sizes are of focused concern due to the greater risk they post to human health – PM10 and PM2.5. PM10, or particles 10 microns and smaller, get deep into your lungs and can enter into your bloodstream. Examples of these particles are dust, pollen, mold, silica and other industrial contaminants. PM2.5, or particles 2.5 microns and smaller, are ultra-fine particulates. These cause the greatest health risk. Examples of these ultra-fine particles are smoke, volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), powdered metals, etc.
The use of disinfectants and biocides – especially when used without proper ventilation or proper protective gear – can lead to a host of human health concerns and risk. Similar to pathogen exposure, symptoms of pesticide/fungicide exposure include headache, dizziness, nausea, and weakness. Long-term exposure can result in damage to the liver, kidneys, the endocrine and nervous systems, and an increased risk of cancer.
While not as notable as other exposures, OSHA has recently started to place limits on worker health exposures to silica. This was in response to largely ignored industries that generate silica dust, such as rock quarries, construction and greenhouse facilities. Federal greenhouses are now being monitored for air quality and particle sizes for this reason and to ensure worker safety.
Additional Chemical Exposure
Most indoor growing environments rely on bleach water solutions and/or hydrogen peroxide to clean spaces and equipment. Bleach can affect employee health through touch or inhalation of the chlorine gas it releases. Long-term effects of low level bleach exposure include permanent lung disease such as bronchitis or shortness of breath. It has also been tied to other problems, such as tooth corrosion. Bleach exposure through touching can cause skin irritation or even burns, especially to areas of sensitive skin, such as around the mouth or eyes. While considered a bit safer when it comes to exposure, long-term exposure to hydrogen peroxide can still cause irritation to the respiratory tract, even leading to partial or complete lung collapse, eye irritation, and bleaching of skin and hair.
Deep ultraviolet light (UVC) has been categorically proven to support organic, chemical free farming. It can sterilize and disinfection molds, mildews and other plant diseases. UVC wavelengths are the most efficient at mold remediation and prevention. However, long term UVC exposure to humans can have negative consequences. Intense direct or long term exposure to humans can cause irreparable harm to skin and eyes. Common sense precautions need to be observed when using UVC light within indoor grow environments. Proper PPE should be utilized, such as UVC-safe safety glasses, gloves and clothing to cover exposed skin are some examples of good practices.
Volatile Organic Compounds
There is a growing body of research supporting claims that potentially high concentrations of terpenes, or volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), exist in indoor grows. These high concentrations are being linked to negative health effects. Cannabis, hemp or other high terpene crops are the primary focus of these studies.
In general, most natural VOCs are inert to human health. However, VOC’s are very susceptible to chemical reactions which can turn into more hazardous pollutants such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, formic acid and acetic acid. This has been seen in the presence of high dose Photocatalytic Oxidation (PCO) equipment. This issue is a recent discovery and long term studies are still ongoing to truly determine health effects. Caution should take priority along with efforts to monitor the health of personnel and provide adequate ventilation to dilute long term exposures.
Healthy Employee Environments
Good housekeeping protocols and the provision of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) are important in minimizing exposure and risk. Moisture resolution and constant clearing of plant debris are important controls for pathogen reduction. Providing and requiring adequate PPE can protect employees from the hazards of long-term exposure to cleaning and sanitizing agents as well as pesticide/fungicide exposure. Additionally, proper ventilation and filtration measures need to be in place. Likewise, the application of UVC to mitigate and control harmful contaminants can also prove beneficial as long as safety protocols are in place. These measures will aid in the prevention and containment of airborne pathogens and protect your employees.