Thursday, May 11, 2006

Is Chemical Engineering giving me headaches?

I have been asked more than a few times if working in the chemical industry is causing my headaches (by exposing me to noxious chemicals). Every time I see a new doctor or neurologist and tell them I'm a chemical engineer, they ask about exposure to chemicals.

Well, the short answer is no. I work in an office in Calgary, far away from our many and varied industrial sites. The last time I visited our petrochemical complex in central Alberta was last summer.

When I started my career in 1995, I worked in an office in Toronto. That in itself might make some people sick (Toronto, the largest city in Canada, has a reputation as the city most Canadians love to hate) but I was rarely ever at a plant site. Occasionally we'd do a plant visit, meaning I was on-site walking through an operating chemical plant (a site that looks, from the road, like a big refinery), but it would only be a few days every 6 months or so.

When my headaches started in 1998, I was actually living in Calgary, where I'd been seconded for a few months to work on a project for my Toronto company. During that year we were designing a new billion-dollar petrochemical complex so I was never anywhere close to a plant site. After that I moved back to Toronto, where the headaches continued, again with very few plant visits.

Upon moving to Calgary in 2001 (year 3 of my headache debacle), I worked at our petrochemical complex near Red Deer for almost 2 years. The headaches continued, but I was working at a modern plant-site with little or no exposure to noxious chemicals. I spent most of my days in an office near the plant site. We do process hydrocarbons (like a refinery), so there are health-hazardous chemicals involved, but they are all contained within modern piping and equipment, and unlike in the old days, there are no direct vents of chemicals to atmosphere.

The only source of chemicals to the air is from our thermal oxidizer and flare stack (which burn chemical vapour and liquid streams with 99.9% efficiency before expelling to the environment), or from equipment leaks, which can occur but are repaired. There are flares and thermal oxidizers on thousands of plant sites around the world. There are thousands of refineries in the world processing chemicals just as health-hazardous as ours. All those people don't have headaches, nor do the people I work with.

And as an engineer, I rarely work "hands-on" with equipment containing chemicals, as an operator, technician, millwright or pipe-fitter might on a regular basis. All I do is walk through areas with big industrial equipment, look around, observe, take readings from instruments, etc. but rarely am I involved in "breaking in" to a piece of equipment. Usually I am sitting in an office analyzing data, talking about technical problems, trouble-shooting, doing calculations or modeling a system on the computer. My hands never get dirty. My work boots are still clean. So I have less exposure than our operators, maintenance staff, lab technicians, etc. and none of those people have headache issues that I'm aware of.

After my 2-year stint at the plant I've been at the Calgary office ever since, with fewer and fewer visits to the plant as time goes on. So, luckily, I don't think my career chemicals are the source of any problems for me.

I wish it were that easy to identify a cause.

1 comment:

  1. Why don't these headaches come with a manual?

    I know a rollercoaster triggered my CDH, but I'd been having more frequent migraines before that. It's like they set me up to get CDH, so it's not any one thing in particular, it's all of them teaming up together.