Asthma is among the most common adult diseases in the world. Despite the fact that the risks of chemical exposure have long been known and that there are well-established recommendations for handling chemicals and protective equipment, many cases of asthma are still caused by exposure to harmful substances at work.

A study at Sahlgrenska Academy, Gothenburg University, has analyzed asthma cases among 13,000 randomly selected adults in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Estonia from 1980 to 2000. According to the study, 429 people had new-onset asthma during this period. Seven percent of the cases among women were linked to workplace exposure—and among men, the number was as high as 14 percent.

The study found that total incidence of new-onset asthma was 24 cases per 1,000 men and 44 cases per 1,000 women.

“To be able to work with primary prevention, it is essential to know which agents at work increase the risk of asthma and which occupations are at high-risk,” says Linnea Lillienberg, researcher at Sahlgrenska Academy.

According to the study, high-risk occupations include:

• spray painters, who are exposed to diisocyanates in paint
• plumbers, who handle adhesives and foam insulation
• cleaners, who handle detergents
• health care and social services personnel, who are exposed to detergents and latex in latex gloves, especially if the gloves contain powder
• food and tobacco industry workers, who are exposed to proteins from plants
• hairdressers, who handle chemicals in bleach and nail beauticians, who use fast-acting glues

“Some people are more susceptible than others. For example, people with hay fever (atopic) are at higher risk of occupational asthma if they’re exposed to proteins from plants and animals. But if we look at individuals with no increased susceptibility (nonatopic), the risk was higher among those compared to atopics if exposed to epoxy and diisocyanates, which are found in glues, varnishes and insulation foams. Among nonatopic women , the risk was particularly elevated among those who handled detergents,” says Linnea Lillienberg.

The study Occupational Exposure and New-onset Asthma in a Population-based Study in Northern Europe (RHINE) was published in The Annals of Occupational Hygiene.

Linnea Lillienberg, Sahlgrenska Academy at Gothenburg University
+46 (0)70 601 3227