Dermal uptake of chemicals at the workplace may contribute considerably to the total internal exposure and so needs to be regulated. At present only qualitative warning signs--the "skin notations"--are available as instruments. An attempt was made to develop a quantitative dermal occupational exposure limit (DOEL) complementary to respiratory occupational exposure limits (OELs). The DOEL refers to the total dose deposited on the skin during a working shift. Based on available data and experience a theoretical procedure for the assessment of a DOEL was developed. A DOEL was derived for cyclophosphamide and 4,4-methylene dianiline (MDA) according to this procedure. The DOEL for MDA was tested for applicability in an actual occupational exposure scenario. An integrated approach is recommended for situations in which both dermal and respiratory exposures contribute considerably to the internal exposure of the worker. The starting point should be an internal health based occupational exposure limit--that is, the maximum dose to be absorbed without leading to adverse systemic effects. The proposed assessment of an external DOEL is then either based on absorption rate or absorption percentage. The estimation of skin penetration seems to be of crucial importance in this concept. If for a specific substance a maximal absorption rate can be estimated a maximal skin surface area to be exposed can be assessed which may then serve the purpose of a DOEL. As long as the actual skin surface exposed is smaller than this maximal skin surface area the internal OEL will not be exceeded, and therefore, no systemic health problems would be expected, independent of the dermal dose/unit area. If not, the DOEL may be interpreted as the product of dermal dose/unit area (mg/cm2) and exposed skin surface area (cm2). The proposed concept for a DOEL is relevant and can be made applicable for health surveillance in the occupational situation where dermal exposure contributes notably to the systemic exposure. Further research should show whether this concept is more generally applicable.
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