Bitumens, occupational exposure to hard bitumens and their emissions during mastic asphalt work (Group 2B)
Bitumens, occupational exposure to oxidized bitumens and their emissions during roofing (Group 2A)
Bitumens, occupational exposure to straight-run bitumens and their emissions during road paving (Group 2B)
Bitumens are products of petroleum refining that are thick, black liquids or solids. Bitumens may also be called asphalt or asphaltic bitumens. However, in this document, bitumens should not be confused with paving asphalt (which is a mixture of bitumen, sand, and stones). Oxidized or air/steam-refined bitumens have undergone a process where hot air is blown through the substance to produce desirable characteristics for industrial applications.[2,4] Bitumens also occur as natural deposits.
Bitumens are generally composed of non-volatile hydrocarbons and their derivatives.[2,5] The chemical composition of bitumens depends on both the crude petroleum source and the refining process.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified bitumens by job types expected to work with bitumen variants. Occupational exposure to hard bitumens and their emissions during mastic asphalt work was classified by IARC as Group 2B, possibly carcinogenic to humans. IARC classified occupational exposure to oxidized bitumens and their emissions during roofing as Group 2A, probably carcinogenic to humans. IARC classified occupational exposure to straight-run bitumens and their emissions during road paving as Group 2B, possibly carcinogenic to humans. Although there is some indication of increased lung and skin cancer rates in animals and humans, epidemiological studies have been inconclusive due to concurrent exposure to coal tar pitches, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), diesel engine exhaust, and other materials used in the occupations reviewed. Naturally occurring bitumens, such as those found in northern Alberta, were not evaluated by the IARC monograph for bitumens.
Non-cancer health effects following exposure to bitumens include eye, respiratory, and skin irritation.[4,5] Hot bitumens may also cause dermal burns.
*for asphalt (bitumen) fume as benzene-soluble aerosol
**for asphalt (petroleum fumes)
mg/m3 = milligrams per cubic meter
i = inhalable fraction
stel = short term exposure limit (15 min. maximum)
ACGIH = American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists
TLV = threshold limit value
Canadian Environmental Guidelines
Bitumen was not included in the Canadian government environmental guidelines reviewed.[7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16]
DSL – high priority substance with the greatest potential for exposure
DSL = domestic substance list
Bitumen was not included in other Canadian government chemical listings reviewed.[18,19,20,21]
More than 80% of bitumens are used in various forms of road construction and maintenance.[2,3] Bitumens are also used in roofing, waterproofing, insulation, paints, adhesives, synthetic turf bases, and sound insulation materials.[2,4,5]
Canadian Production and Trade
Canadian refineries produced approximately 4 million cubic metres of bitumens in 2012, and Canada is a net exporter. The largest market for exported Canadian bitumens is the United States.
Production and Trade
m3 = cubic metre
t = tonne
Inhalation of bitumen fumes and dusts is the most important route of occupational exposure. For bitumens used in cooler temperatures, such as cutback bitumens, blended bitumens, and bitumen emulsions, regular skin contact may also occur.
CAREX Canada estimates that approximately 44,000 Canadians are exposed to bitumens in their workplaces. The largest industrial groups exposed are highway, bridge, and street construction, followed by foundation, structure, and building exterior contractors. The petroleum and coal products manufacturing industry is also significantly exposed since bitumens are initially produced and processed there.
The largest occupational groups exposed are construction trades helpers and labourers, followed by roofers and shinglers, and heavy equipment operators. Other occupations potentially exposed to bitumens include those employed in refineries, asphalt mixing plants, and roofing material manufacturing,[2,4] as well as workers involved in transporting and storaging bitumens.
Strategies to reduce exposures include selecting the correct kettle type/size, using low fuming asphalt, and using temperature control devices to reduce asphalt fume emissions.
There is limited data available on environmental bitumen concentrations in drinking water, food, and soil. It is more likely that the general public would be exposed to bitumen fumes, rather than bitumens in their liquid or solid form. Sources of environmental exposure include inhaling emissions from industrial production and use of bitumens, such as asphalt mixing plants and road paving. Runoff from roads paved with bitumens may also contain low levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), leading to potential exposure via dermal and ingestion routes.
Bitumen is not reportable to the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) in Canada. A search of the US Household Products Database (search term "bitumen") yielded over 60 products containing bitumens as an ingredient – all were asphalt products.
Our team has performed a detailed scan of exposure control resources and assembled a compilation of key publications and resources. These are organized by type of exposure (environmental or occupational) and by specificity (general or carcinogen-specific). Please visit our Exposures Reduction Resources page to view.
We also recommend exploring the Prevention Policies Directory, a freely-accessible online tool offering information on policies related to cancer and chronic disease prevention. Providing summaries of the policies and direct access to the policy documents, the Directory allows users to search by carcinogen, risk factor, jurisdiction, geographical location, and document type. Click here to learn more about policies specific to bitumens in the Directory. For questions about this resource, please contact a member of the Prevention Team at the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer at firstname.lastname@example.org.