The toxic workplace

Although global warming matters and is clearly reaching a critical turning point from which there will be no going back, the most pressing environmental issue for companies is not climate change, but pollution. This not only affects employees’ health, but also travel to work and delays to business trips due to poor visibility on roads and runways. What’s more, some three million deaths around the world each year can be attributable directly to pollution in buildings or the wider atmosphere.

Air quality is a huge concern in the extractive and chemical industries, but how many companies outside these sectors monitor air quality on a regular basis? Yet some of the most polluted workplaces are in locations and sectors that few of us would dream were dangerous. For instance, the risks from inhalation of small particulates (PM2.5) is higher than for even gases like sulphur dioxide – and the highest risk countries in the World are Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt.

Whilst overall pollution levels are gradually going down across Europe and Americas they are still rising in Africa, the Middle-East and Asia. There remain too high concentrations of dangerous pollutants in eastern Europe – especially in Poland and the city of Skopje in North Macedonia is easily the most polluted city in Europe.

Of course, most of us are now aware that the World’s most polluted city is New Delhi, but a high proportion of deaths from pollution in India come not from car emissions, but kitchen stoves. Many Indian workplaces are also a huge health hazard, with little protection given from industrial processes, smoking by colleagues and external atmospheric contamination. In fact, over a million people die each year in India from smoking cigarettes, beedi, and smokeless tobacco (SLT) and, although anti-smoking laws exist, they are seldom observed. 

Radio Activity

A more serious and underestimated source of pollution comes from radio-active sources and the most common of these is Radon. This gas occurs naturally around the World, especially in areas where the geology of the ground is igneous. There is no safety limit as its presence even in small quantities is carcinogenic and the World Health Organisation has found that Radon is the primary cause of lung cancer for those who have never smoked. In the USA, the 1988 Radon Abatement Act has set a target level of the gas that remain generally unachievable in affected areas, but inside the workplace it can be more readily controlled. However, the first step is measurement – and there are several inexpensive devices available to do this.

The European Union (EU) agency responsible for monitoring radioactivity is EURDEP. The only problem is that this body is not allowed to publicly reveal radioactive fallout in anything like “real time”. This self-censorship goes back to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 when fallout affected huge areas of Europe, particularly eastern France. To avoid panic there was “radio silence” on radioactive pollution. The only national website that was still working in the public domain until this year was in Cyprus. However, this was disabled in August after huge spikes of highly toxic Caesium 137 and Iodine 131 aroused public interest.


Delegating pollution control to a health and safety officer is pushing the problem under the carpet. It should be a matter of concern for all those with a management role and an issue that urgently requires the attention of company Boards.

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