Scientists Test Carbonless Copy Paper For Sickening Side Effects

Published: May 22nd, 1997

Category: Engineering, Environment, Health, Research, Sciences

GAINESVILLE — Working closely with carbonless copy paper over a long period of time may cause severe health problems such as chronic fatigue, sinus difficulties and central nervous system depression, according to preliminary findings from a University of Florida study.

Charles Schmidt, an associate in engineering for the Department of Environmental Engineering at UF, heads a group of experts from the colleges of Engineering and Pharmacy that has tested and experimented with carbonless paper for more than a year. What they discovered, Schmidt said, is that potentially dangerous chemicals are used to make the paper, and these can escape into the air as well as penetrate the skin.

“What we believe is that chronic exposure to the carbonless paper can be hazardous to a person’s health,” Schmidt said.

Carbonless copy paper was patented in 1955 but didn’t become widely used until the 1970s. With this paper, a copy of a top sheet is created instantly on a bottom sheet when the press of the pen releases dye contained in tiny bubbles. Researchers at UF’s Environmental Mass Spectrometry Lab used an electron microscope to photograph thousands of the microcapsules containing the components needed to create the copy.

Schmidt said one component found in the microcapsules is a biphenyl oil that flows out when the bubbles are ruptured, either through writing on the top sheet or simply through handling the paper. The oil can be absorbed through the skin and may enhance penetration of the other compounds, including hydrocarbon solvents, formaldehyde and the dye precursors, among many others tested.

Scientists suspect that a toxic chemical, toluene diiso cyanate, also may be encapsulated in the bubbles. Even though the amount of this chemical would be very small, Schmidt said toxicologists can determine if chronic exposure to it could build up to a person’s threshold level. Schmidt and his colleagues seek funding to continue with this aspect of the research.

To determine if chemicals escape into the air, researchers examined two offices. One office uses a great deal of carbonless copy paper and provides poor ventilation. Another office that has similar ventilation but uses very little carbonless paper was used as a control group.

Results from air samples showed the same elements discovered in the carbonless copy paper were present in the air of the office using large quantities of the paper.

“We have real evidence to suggest that volatile organic compounds were found because of the carbonless paper,” Schmidt said. “This means that people are breathing these vapors in a poorly ventilated room with high humidity.”

In addition, when scientists compared office records, they found a higher rate of sick leave and illness complaints at the office using large amounts of the carbonless copy paper.

Schmidt said incidental or occasional contact with carbonless copy paper, such as with a carbonless check book, should not make a person sick.

“The concern is for people who sit at their desks working with this paper all day long,” Schmidt said. “These are the people who could experience health problems. In these cases, people should wash their hands frequently, try to get away from the office for fresh air and don’t eat at their desk.”

Recently, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reopened an investigation into whether exposure by workers to carbonless copy paper poses health risks. Brenda Smith, a former office worker in Virginia Beach, Va., said she and thousands of others across the country are proof that the paper causes adverse effects.

After working for 10 years in an office that was filled with carbonless copy paper forms, memos and invoice statements, Smith said she suffers from neurological problems, chronic respiratory infections, chronic laryngitis and constant pain. She is part of a class action lawsuit filed against a manufacturer of the paper claiming that high use of the paper has caused multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome in workers.

“It started out as simple sinus and respiratory infections,” Smith said. “But after a while, I just couldn’t stay well.”

Credits

Writer
Karen Meisenheimer

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