Airborne Substance Screening

By Timothy Hyland


On the Top 10 list of the world’s most dangerous professions, dentistry doesn’t rank—or even come close.

But one researcher believes recent evidence suggests that there may be a greater hazard to dental practices than most professionals believe—and he’s working with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to find out whether or not his suspicions are correct.

Dr. Fotinos Panagakos
Dr. Fotinos Panagakos

Fotinos Panagakos, DMD, PhD, associate dean of research at the West Virginia University School of Dentistry, has secured funding from NIOSH – a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – to conduct research into how the airborne particulates and gases generated during common dental treatments might negatively impact the health of dentists and team members who are exposed to those substances on a daily basis.

The study was spurred by the discovery that a small group of dental professionals working together at a single clinic had all been diagnosed with a chronic lung condition called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) describes it as a chronic, progressive lung disease that causes scar tissue to build up in the lungs, eventually making them incapable of delivering oxygen into the bloodstream. The condition can be deadly.

"When a dentist is drilling into your tooth, they're using water with suction, so the suction system will capture most of the particulate matter. And if it does go into the air, they're wearing a mask that should prevent the moisture and particulates from going through," Dr. Panagakos explained in a statement issued by WVU.


The National Institutes of Health describes the condition as a chronic, progressive lung disease that causes scar tissue to build up in the lungs, eventually making them incapable of delivering oxygen into the bloodstream. It can be deadly.


"It's really all the other work that they do outside of the mouth—grinding, polishing things, modifying appliances, pouring and trimming plaster, often without a suction system to pull particulates away, and many times not wearing any respiratory protection—that are of concern," he added.

In research that will be conducted at five teaching clinics operated by WVU and 29 others managed privately, Dr. Panagakos and his team will measure the size, concentration, and composition of airborne particulates that are generated during even the most common dental procedures. They note that these particles could include everything from simple dust to metals to volatile organic compounds.

The team will also study ventilation systems to better understand what measures can be taken to protect dental practitioners from hazards these particulates may pose.

"In some smaller clinics, it could be that their setting is in a strip mall, say, and the ventilation systems have not been evaluated," Brie Blackley, a research industrial hygienist with NIOSH, said in the WVU statement. "We will characterize not only the potential exposures that are present but what actions can be taken to mitigate them."

Given the seriousness of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis – NIH says the condition can be fatal within three to five years of diagnosis – the researchers intend to share their findings with the American Dental Association. This will help dental professionals understand the dangers they are facing and educate them on how to mitigate those hazards.

"If you're in a dental lab facility where a dental lab technician works, they probably have a higher level of preventive measures in place. Here at the Dental School, our labs are equipped along those lines," Dr. Panagakos said. "But if you're at a dental office, there's probably very little protection, if any."


Author: Contributing writer Timothy Hyland has more than 20 years’ experience as a writer, reporter, and editor. His work has also appeared in Fast Company, Roll Call, Philadelphia Business Journal, and the Washington Times.

Also by Mr. Hyland:

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