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Alert 1 - Exposure to formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds in caravans, mobile homes and demountable buildings

Comcare has received confirmed reports of employees living in converted shipping containers being adversely affected by elevated levels of formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Employees, contractors and individuals living or working in caravans, mobile homes and demountable buildings (including converted shipping containers) face a potential health risk of exposure to formaldehyde and other VOCs.

About formaldehyde

In November 2007, a report initiated by the Australian Government’s National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (Safety Information Sheet No. 28) concluded that the occupants of caravans, mobile homes and demountable buildings may experience adverse health effects from exposure to the chemical formaldehyde.

The report indicated that indoor air concentrations of formaldehyde can reach high levels in caravans, mobile homes and demountable buildings. This is due to the construction materials used, the relatively small space inside and the fact that these buildings may remain closed up for long periods of time.

Exposure to formaldehyde at high levels may cause sensory irritation that may be felt as stinging or burning sensations in the eyes, nose and/or sore throat.

Material Safety Data Sheets indicate formaldehyde is toxic and may cause:

  • mucous membrane irritation
  • coughing, chest pain and sensitisation with asthma-like symptoms
  • breathing difficulties
  • pulmonary oedema
  • convulsions at high levels
  • insomnia
  • cell mutations
  • liver damage 
  • fertility effects

Formaldehyde is also classified as a probable human carcinogen.

About VOCs

The World Health Organisation defines VOCs as organic compounds (chemicals containing hydrogen and oxygen) other than pesticides with boiling points of between 50 ºC and 260 ºC.

A Fact Sheet on VOCs issued by the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts states that the health effects depend on the specific composition of the VOC present, their concentration and the length of exposure.

General effects of exposure to VOCs include:

  • irritation to the eyes, nose and throat
  • headaches
  • loss of coordination
  • nausea
  • damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system

Some VOCs can cause cancer in animals, and some are suspected or are known to cause cancer in humans.

Build up of VOCs in indoor environments have been associated with ‘sick building syndrome’.

Statutory requirements

Section 16 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 1991 requires employers to take all reasonably practicable steps to protect the health and safety at work of the employer’s employees and contractors. A breach of section 16 can occur if an employer fails to take all reasonably practicable steps to:

  • provide and maintain a working environment that provides adequate facilities for the welfare at work of employees and contractors
  • take appropriate action to monitor the health and safety at work of employees and contractors, or
  • take appropriate action to monitor the conditions of the workplaces under the employer’s control

Health and safety considerations

If caravans, mobile homes or demountable buildings (including converted shipping containers) are used as accommodation or as work spaces, an employer should conduct a risk assessment to determine if an indoor atmospheric test(s) needs to be conducted by an appropriately qualified person. The Occupational Health and Safety Code of Practice 2008, Part One – Risk Management, provides guidance on conducting risk assessments. 

If the risk assessment indicates that indoor atmospheric monitoring should be undertaken, the employer must undertake appropriate monitoring in accordance with a suitable procedure. This will help identify any health and safety risks. Monitoring will also help ensure that no employee, contractor or third party at, or near a workplace, is subjected to any health and safety risk due to the presence of formaldehyde or VOCs.

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Page last updated: 17 Sep 2014