'Toxic tiles' in kids' dental clinic

OLIVIA CARVILLE
Last updated 10:50 16/05/2014

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Unacceptably high levels of a toxic chemical have been found inside a mobile dental clinic that has been caring for primary school children in Canterbury.

Staff who worked inside the clinic complained of an acrid smell and symptoms linked to chemical exposure, such as itchy eyes, runny noses and headaches.

Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) has carried out a number of tests on the clinic to try and identify the odour, and six weeks ago a Chemsafety test found the formaldehyde levels exceeded the national Workplace Exposure Standard.

CDHB called an urgent meeting with staff to brief them on the risks of exposure to formaldehyde and to offer a health monitoring programme.

Although the formaldehyde levels exceeded national standards, it was only at very low levels.

CDHB medical officer of health Dr Ramon Pink said the risk to the general public was "very low and didn't therefore constitute a public health issue".

The high formaldehyde levels were found in the ceiling tiles of the clinic and the CDHB has since replaced the tiles and is now conducting testing of the new material.

The three other level-two clinics, which use the same products, have also been pulled off the road for testing and cleaning to ensure staff safety, said Dan Coward, CDHB general manager of community dental service.

"We want our staff to know we are taking this issue very seriously," he said.

All four clinics were expected to return to service within a month.

CDHB consultant occupational physician Andrew Hilliard would be providing advice to affected staff.

Two open-forum meetings to discuss risks associated with low-level of exposure to chemicals have been held so far.

Some staff had suffered from low-level exposure irritant symptoms, such as itchy eyes and a runny nose, but there was no long-term risk, he said.

Hilliard had no concern for the patients' safety because they would have only been inside the clinic for a short length of time, he said. Worksafe NZ and the Ministry of Health have been notified of the incident.

The CDHB would be conducting a root cause analysis of the issue to work out how it could be avoided in the future, Coward said.

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