Use of and Occupational Exposure to Indium in the United States
Indium use has increased greatly in the past decade in parallel with the growth of flat-panel displays, touchscreens, optoelectronic devices, and photovoltaic cells. Much of this growth has been in the use of indium tin oxide (ITO). This increased use has resulted in more frequent and intense exposure of workers to indium. Starting with case reports and followed by epidemiological studies, exposure to ITO has been linked to serious and sometimes fatal lung disease in workers. Much of this research was conducted in facilities that process sintered ITO, including manufacture, grinding, and indium reclamation from waste material. Little has been known about indium exposure to workers in downstream applications. In 2009–2011, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) contacted 89 potential indium-using companies; 65 (73%) responded, and 43 of the 65 responders used an indium material. Our objective was to identify current workplace applications of indium materials, tasks with potential indium exposure, and exposure controls being used. Air sampling for indium was either conducted by NIOSH or companies provided their data for a total of 63 air samples (41 personal, 22 area) across 10 companies. Indium exposure exceeded the NIOSH recommended exposure limit (REL) of 0.1 mg/m3 for certain methods of resurfacing ITO sputter targets, cleaning sputter chamber interiors, and in manufacturing some inorganic indium compounds. Indium air concentrations were low in sputter target bonding with indium solder, backside thinning and polishing of fabricated indium phosphide-based semiconductor devices, metal alloy production, and in making indium-based solder pastes. Exposure controls such as containment, local exhaust ventilation (LEV), and tool-mounted LEV can be effective at reducing exposure. In conclusion, occupational hygienists should be aware that the manufacture and use of indium materials can result in indium air concentrations that exceed the NIOSH REL. Given recent findings of adverse health effects in workers, research is needed to determine if the current REL sufficiently protects workers against indium-related diseases.