But they are not thresholds: a critical analysis of the documentation of Threshold Limit Values

Am J Ind Med. 1990;17(6):727-53. doi: 10.1002/ajim.4700170607.


Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) represent conditions under which the TLV Committee of the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) believes that nearly all workers may be repeatedly exposed without adverse effect. A detailed research was made of the references in the 1976 Documentation to data on "industrial experience" and "experimental human studies." The references, sorted for those including both the incidence of adverse effects and the corresponding exposure, yielded 158 paired sets of data. Upon analysis it was found that, where the exposure was at or below the TLV, only a minority of studies showed no adverse effects (11 instances) and the remainder indicated that up to 100% of those exposed had been affected (8 instances of 100%). Although, the TLVs were poorly correlated with the incidence of adverse effects, a surprisingly strong correlation was found between the TLVs and the exposures reported in the corresponding studies cited in the Documentation. Upon repeating the search of references to human experience, at or below the TLVs, listed in the more recent, 1986 edition of the Documentation, a very similar picture has emerged from the 72 sets of clear data which were found. Again, only a minority of studies showed no adverse effects and TLVs were poorly correlated with the incidence of adverse effect and well correlated with the measured exposure. Finally, a careful analysis revealed that authors' conclusions in the references (cited in the 1976 Documentation) regarding exposure-response relationships at or below the TLVs were generally found to be at odds with the conclusions of the TLV Committee. These findings suggest that those TLVs which are justified on the basis of "industrial experience" are not based purely upon health considerations. Rather, those TLVs appear to reflect the levels of exposure which were perceived at the time to be achievable in industry. Thus, ACGIH TLVs may represent guides of levels which have been achieved, but they are certainly not thresholds.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants, Occupational / adverse effects*
  • Documentation
  • Environmental Exposure*
  • Humans
  • Maximum Allowable Concentration*
  • Occupational Diseases / chemically induced
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • United States


  • Air Pollutants, Occupational