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Risk assessment of occupational exposure to heavy metal mixtures: a study protocol

Abstract : Background - Sfax is a very industrialized city located in the southern region of Tunisia where heavy metals (HMs) pollution is now an established matter of fact. The health of its residents mainly those engaged in industrial metals-based activities is under threat. Indeed, such workers are being exposed to a variety of HMs mixtures, and this exposure has cumulative properties. Whereas current HMs exposure assessment is mainly carried out using direct air monitoring approaches, the present study aims to assess health risks associated with chronic occupational exposure to HMs in industry, using a modeling approach that will be validated later on.

Methods - To this end, two questionnaires were used. The first was an identification/descriptive questionnaire aimed at identifying, for each company: the specific activities, materials used, manufactured products and number of employees exposed. The second related to the job-task of the exposed persons, workplace characteristics (dimensions, ventilation, etc.), type of metals and emission configuration in space and time. Indoor air HMs concentrations were predicted, based on the mathematical models generally used to estimate occupational exposure to volatile substances (such as solvents). Later on, and in order to validate the adopted model, air monitoring will be carried out, as well as some biological monitoring aimed at assessing HMs excretion in the urine of workers volunteering to participate. Lastly, an interaction-based hazard index HI and a decision support tool will be used to predict the cumulative risk assessment for HMs mixtures.

Discussion - One hundred sixty-one persons working in the 5 participating companies have been identified. Of these, 110 are directly engaged with HMs in the course of the manufacturing process. This model-based prediction of occupational exposure represents an alternative tool that is both time-saving and cost-effective in comparison with direct air monitoring approaches. Following validation of the different models according to job processes, via comparison with direct measurements and exploration of correlations with biological monitoring, these estimates will allow a cumulative risk characterization.

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Fatma Omrane, Imed Gargouri, Moncef Khadhraoui, Boubaker Elleuch, Denis Zmirou-Navier. Risk assessment of occupational exposure to heavy metal mixtures: a study protocol. BMC Public Health, BioMed Central, 2018, 18 (1), pp.314. ⟨10.1186/s12889-018-5191-5⟩. ⟨inserm-01728519⟩

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