Greenhouse work can pose asthma risk: study

Greenhouse workers may face a heightened risk of contracting asthma due to exposure to molds and allergy-causing flowers, according to the results of a small study.

Occupational asthma is a well-known hazard of certain jobs in which workers are routinely exposed to chemicals, dust, gases, food allergens and other potential irritants to the respiratory system. It is thought that on-the-job exposure to such substances accounts for a large number of asthma cases that first emerge in adulthood.

For example, bakers may become sensitive to flour, which could then trigger asthma symptoms. For hairdressers, the culprit may be the perfumes or chemicals in hair-styling products.

The authors of a new study believe it is the first look at the risk of occupational asthma among flower and ornamental plant growers working in greenhouses. Among the 39 workers they studied, nearly eight per cent had asthma caused by workplace flowers or molds, according to findings published in the April issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

The research team found that overall, more than one third of the greenhouse workers were sensitive to various types of flowers and/or workplace molds. One quarter of these sensitive workers had occupational asthma.

The conditions in the greenhouse did not matter much in workers’ becoming sensitive to workplace allergens or asthma symptoms, although those who did not report any wheezing in the past year worked in more ventilated greenhouses.

Workers with allergies to other substances, such as cat dander and pollen, were far more likely than others to be sensitive to flowers and/or mold, the researchers note.

In addition to the risk to greenhouse employees, many other workers run the risk of occupational asthma as well. Other occupations associated with asthma include health care; animal handling; work with grains; bakeries; work with red cedar; laboratory work; snow crab and egg processing; manufacturing of detergents containing biological enzymes; work with paints, plastics, and adhesives; work with metal salts; jewelry making; nickel plating; the tanning industry; and soldering.

In some cases the risks are exceptionally high. One study estimates that 17 per cent of hospital staff will have allergic reactions to latex gloves. Another study estimates that 2.9 per cent of all nurses and physicians, 5.6 per cent of operating room nurses, and 7.4 per cent of operating physicians will develop a latex allergy.

The prevalence of asthma is unfortunate because occupational asthma is a preventable disease that often becomes chronic and could disable millions of people worldwide at considerable personal and social cost. Researchers call for greater prevention efforts and quicker diagnosis and treatment by healthcare professionals.

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