Background: Municipal workers handling household waste are potentially exposed to a variety of toxic and pathogenic substances, in particular airborne bacteria, gram-negative bacteria (GNB), and fungi. However, relatively little is known about the conditions under which exposure is facilitated.
Methods: This study assessed levels of airborne bacteria, GNB, and fungi, and examined these in relation to the type of waste-handling activity (collection, transfer, transport, and sorting at the waste preprocessing plant), as well as a variety of other environmental and occupational factors. Airborne microorganisms were sampled using an Andersen single-stage sampler equipped with agar plates containing the appropriate nutritional medium and then cultured to determine airborne levels. Samples were taken during collection, transfer, transport, and sorting of household waste. Multiple regression analysis was used to identify environmental and occupational factors that significantly affect airborne microorganism levels during waste-handling activities.
Results: The "type of waste-handling activity" was the only factor that significantly affected airborne levels of bacteria and GNB, accounting for 38% (P = 0.029) and 50% (P = 0.0002) of the variation observed in bacteria and GNB levels, respectively. In terms of fungi, the type of waste-handling activity (R2 = 0.76) and whether collection had also occurred on the day prior to sampling (P < 0.0001, R2 = 0.78) explained most of the observed variation. Given that the type of waste-handling activity was significantly correlated with levels of bacteria, GNB, and fungi, we suggest that various engineering, administrative, and regulatory measures should be considered to reduce the occupational exposure to airborne microorganisms in the waste-handling industry.