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Cleaning jobs linked to adult asthma risk

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks
gloves and sponge

22nd January 2013 - A new study has found 18 occupations clearly linked to a risk of asthma, four were cleaning jobs and a further three were likely to involve exposure to cleaning products.

This new study suggests risks in the workplace could be responsible for one in six cases of adult onset asthma in British adults born in the late 1950s - even more than the one in nine cases attributed to smoking.

Researchers at Imperial College London tracked the occurrence of asthma in a group of 9,488 people born in Britain in 1958. Not including those who had asthma as children, 9% developed asthma by the age of 42.

18 occupations

As well as cleaners, farmers, hairdressers and print workers were also found to have an increased risk (as previous studies have reported). Farmers were approximately four times more likely to develop asthma as an adult than office workers. Hairdressing almost doubled the risk of adult onset asthma and jobs in printing tripled the risk.

Besides cleaning and disinfectant products, flour, enzymes, metals and textiles were among materials in the workplace identified in the study as being linked to asthma risk.

In all 61 occupations were tested with 18 reaching levels of significance. They were:

  • Cooks
  • Waiters, waitresses and bartenders
  • Home-based personal care workers
  • Hairdressers, barbers, beauticians
  • Protective services workers
  • Market-oriented crop and animal producers
  • Aircraft engine mechanics and fitters
  • Compositors, typesetters
  • Sewing machine operators
  • Cleaners (unspecified)
  • Domestic helpers and cleaners
  • Helpers and cleaners in offices, hotels
  • Hand-launderers and pressers
  • Messengers, package and luggage porters and deliverers
  • Doorkeepers, watchpersons
  • Building construction labourers

Manufacturing labourers

Hand packers and other manufacturing labourers

Preventing exposure to harmful substances

The study’s lead author, Dr Rebecca Ghosh of the Centre for Environment and Health at Imperial College, says there are other occupations that did not show up in the study, mainly because they are relatively uncommon. She says occupational asthma is widely under-recognised by employers, employees and healthcare professionals. She told BootsWebMD by email that many cases of asthma related to occupation can be prevented by good practices in the workplace.

"Workplaces should use all recommended safety equipment and procedures. Raising awareness that this is an almost entirely preventable disease would be a major step in reducing its incidence.

"Preventing exposure to harmful substances usually means a combination of some of the following controls:

  • Use good work techniques that avoid or minimise contact with harmful substances and minimise leaks and spills. Store cleaning products safely.
  • For some tasks, you may also need to provide personal protective equipment like protective gloves, aprons and eye protection.
  • Practice good hand care - remove contamination promptly, wash hands properly, dry thoroughly and use skin creams regularly.
  • Keep the workplace well ventilated.

The controls you need will depend on the task.”

However, she says the study provides no evidence to identify people who were particularly at risk of developing asthma as a result of potential exposure.

"All workers should consider they are ‘at risk’ and all workers should take appropriate protective action," she says.

Malayka Rahman, Research Analysis and Communications Officer at Asthma UK, said in a press release: "We advise anyone who works in the industries highlighted in this study and who have experienced breathing problems to discuss this with their GP, and we urge healthcare professionals to make sure they consider possible occupational causes in adult onset asthma and tailor their advice to people with asthma accordingly."

The study is published in the respiratory journal Thorax and was funded by Asthma UK and the Colt Foundation.

Reviewed on January 22, 2013

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