Bitumen & Health FAQs
1. What is the difference between Hazard and Risk?
“Hazard” and “Risk” have very different meanings. See how they differ by clicking here.
2. What is bitumen?
Bitumen is a virtually non-volatile, adhesive and waterproofing material derived from the distillation of crude oil. It is produced by removing the lighter fractions from heavy crude oil during the refining process and is very viscous, almost solid, at ambient temperatures.
3. Is there a difference between bitumen and coal tar (or tar sands)?
Yes there is.
Bitumen is distilled from crude oil and is very different from coal tar, which is derived from processing (pyrolysis) of coal at very high temperatures. Coal tar was used for road building and water proofing, but was replaced by bitumen during the 1950s.
Although similar in appearance, the chemical composition of coal tar is very different from bitumen, as is the nature of hazard that coal tar presents to the user: coal tar is classified as carcinogenic, whereas bitumen is not.
[Tar sands - also known as cold oil sands or bitumen sands - contain naturally occurring heavy crude oil, which is a very different substance to bitumen.]
4. Should the general public be concerned about any hazards from bitumen?
No. Bitumen in use, for example, on roads, roofs or pavements, are inert and do not present any known health or environmental hazard.
5. And what about those who work with bitumen?
Bitumen is normally manufactured, stored, transported and handled hot. Hence the most significant hazard to workers from hot bitumen is the potential to cause burns.
Bitumen is usually applied hot. Hot bitumen gives off fumes, which can cause respiratory tract or eye irritation. Apart from this temporary irritation, under normal conditions there is no evidence that working with bitumen is hazardous to worker health. The risk of exposure to this hazard - and, therefore, the potential health impact on workers - is minimised through good temperature control, working practices and appropriate workwear.
6. How can worker exposure to fumes from bitumen be minimised?
Worker exposure can be minimised by the use of good working practices, such as:
- Keeping the temperature of the material as low as practically possible;
- Working in well ventilated conditions (including simple practices e.g. standing upwind of the source of fumes);
- Job rotation around the worksite;
- Use of personal protective equipment, especially in confined spaces.