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Breath sampling for solvents

Organic solvents are widely used in industry, and exposure to them results in entry into the body through the skin as well as by inhalation.  Biological monitoring (BM) is a way of assessing total exposure by all routes.  Many BM methods currently detect the compound of interest or its metabolites in blood or urine.  However, blood sampling is invasive, and requires specially trained staff.  Since there is a rapid exchange between volatiles and gases in blood and air in the lungs, breath sampling has been proposed as a non-invasive alternative to blood sampling.

HSE Science and Research Centre has developed an unique breath sampler (the Bio-VOC).  The sampler operation is such that it captures the final portion of an exhalation, the end-tidal or alveolar air.  This portion of the exhaled air is in equilibrium with the blood passing through the lungs. The captured portion of air is then transferred onto a stainless steel tube packed with adsorbent material (the same as used for ambient air monitoring).  Once sealed, the sample is robust for storage and transport at room temperature over a number of weeks (unlike blood samples).

The solvent levels in the breath fall rapidly immediately after exposure, followed by a relatively slower change in excretion.  This makes the technique only 'semi-quantitative' for most solvents, although it can be used quantitatively for some chlorinated solvents that are stored in body fat.  The sample is best taken in a 'clean' area (e.g. office, medical room) about 10 minutes after the end of exposure.  Two, duplicate, samples should be provided per worker per time point.  Also, two tubes should be returned unused, as 'field blanks'.

Breath sampling, like all biological monitoring, can be especially useful when substances are potentially absorbed through the skin (as many solvents are) and/or when control of exposure relies upon personal protective equipment.  By taking breath samples, you can determine whether the control measures in place are working or the PPE used is effective. It is also suitable for following the effects of changing work practices or control measures.

We designed and developed the Bio-VOC breath sampler, which is now marketed by Markes International. You may either purchase the Bio-VOC sampler to perform your own analyses or hire one from us and have the analysis done for you.

Breath sampling instructions

Loan of sampler and analysis

If you have no analytical testing facilities, we can loan the breath sampler with the relevant sampling kit. You will be sent all the necessary equipment and instructions. The loan of the sampler is complimentary (you will be charged for sample analysis) but will need to be returned.

Purchase of Bio-VOC samplers

If you have your own ATD facilities, you may purchase breath samplers direct from Markes International ( Full instructions will be provided.

Interpretation of results can be by a number of means: some solvents (e.g. tetrachloroethene) have been set American or German guidance values. Others can be interpreted from volunteer studies or literature reviews. Many solvents will currently have to be interpreted on an 'in-house' basis, by comparison to 'baseline' values for particular processes.  We have collated information (including our own volunteer studies and field studies) for a number of solvents to help interpret results (see below).

UK Biomonitoring Network

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