Green construction, or building energy-efficient and sustainable structures, is in high demand. The push for more green buildings has led to construction workers using energy-efficient materials, like spray polyurethane foam insulation (spray foam). This material forms a continuous barrier on walls and corners, preventing moisture from getting inside of structures through cracks and seams. It also effectively insulates buildings to minimize the use of energy.

The issue for construction workers is that exposure to the main chemicals in spray foam, known as isocyanates, is associated with skin disorders such as contact dermatitis, skin irritation, and possible skin burns, as well as other health risks like asthma. Numerous studies support using personal protective equipment to reduce skin exposure when applying spray foam, but none focus on how the chemicals might penetrate protective garments.

NIOSH research focuses on ways to increase use of green construction practices that protect workers against this and other hazards. A NIOSH-funded study at University of Massachusetts Lowell tested protective garments that construction workers commonly wear when using spray foam. The researchers tested five different disposable garments: latex, nitrile, and vinyl gloves, and polypropylene and Tyvek coveralls, according to the study in Annals of Work Exposures and Health.

The researchers designed and used a special chemical permeation, or penetration, testing system to put the spray foam on several garments similar to how the substance is applied in real-life. They then measured the rate of permeation of various isocyanates with time. They noted the isocyanates penetrated all five garments in a linear fashion, meaning the amount of isocyanates reaching the skin was related to exposure time. However, all of the garments provided considerable protection, with some fabrics performing particularly better than others. Specifically, nitrile gloves and polypropylene coveralls provided the most protection against skin exposure to the spray foam, while latex gloves provided the least protection.

Despite the study’s findings, the researchers recommend avoiding exposure to strong chemicals, like isocyanates, as much as possible. Still, the findings could inform manufacturers about how their garments protect customers against these chemicals. The findings can also guide better choices of the types of gloves and coveralls to use in the workplace and recommend better hygiene practices. However, the researchers caution that their findings only apply to spray foams with chemicals similar to those used in their study. They recommend additional testing with other chemicals.

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