Following concerns raised by workers at the Kingspan facility in Santa Ana, Calif., workers and community leaders organized and engaged experts in the construction of an air monitoring assessment to measure the levels of air pollution to which Kingspan workers and residents are exposed during the workday.

The assessment focused on measuring airborne particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller, (referred to as PM 2.5), which is less than one-30th the diameter of a human hair. PM 2.5 is widely associated with a range of adverse health conditions, including respiratory and cardiovascular problems, as well as increased mortality and hospital admissions.

“We’re talking about exposures that we incurred [in southern California] due to wildfires being on par with those that workers on the interior of Kingspan are being exposed to.”

UC Irvine Air Pollution Scientist Dr. Shahir Masri

The workers joined forces with the local environmental justice movement and an air pollution scientist at UC Irvine, Dr. Shahir Masri, who trained workers to document air quality issues over three days using specialized air monitoring devices. 

“We’re talking about exposures that we incurred [in southern California] due to wildfires,” said Masri, “being on par with those that workers on the interior of Kingspan are being exposed to.” 

Masri’s analysis found that the average PM 2.5 concentration inside the Kingspan facility was nearly 7-times higher than outdoors (as compared to smoke in wildfire episodes, which often results in a 2- to 4-fold increase in PM 2.5). Of eight employees who carried air monitors, five recorded average PM 2.5 concentrations that, if measured outdoors, would rank between “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy” according to EPA’s Air Quality Index. Some measurements reached the maximum limit of the monitor’s detection ability.

In his report, “Air Pollution Inside Kingspan, Masri notes: “In contrast to larger particles, which can be filtered out by the respiratory tract when inhaled, smaller PM 2.5 particles have the ability to penetrate to the deepest area of the lung—the alveolar region—where gas exchange takes place. This region is not coated with a protective mucus layer, and also takes longer to clear deposited particles, thus allowing for potentially greater health effects.

Manufacturing industries, including their combustion sources, are a significant source of air pollution in communities of color, with high PM 2.5 levels accounting for between 85,000 and 200,000 premature deaths each year. The Kingspan report is one of the first attempts by workers themselves to measure air quality levels inside a factory. 

Kingspan prides itself on its “Planet Passionate” programs designed to “protect the natural environment,” and is headquartered in Ireland, with 166 factories around the world and 15,500 employees. It had global sales of $5.5 billion in 2020. The company’s profit has increased every year since 2008, reaching $600 million in trading profit in 2020 despite COVID-19.  

The report concludes that the “findings suggest the need for ongoing air monitoring both inside and outside of the Kingspan facility so as to better characterize the long-term air pollution concentrations to which workers and community members may be exposed and to allow for adequate follow-up evaluation following the implementation of mitigation measures.”