Work-related Asthma and Cleaning Products

A new study indicates exposure to cleaning products isn't just a concern for workers when they go home at night, but can be a problem at work as well. Some 12 percent of work-related asthma cases can be linked to cleaning products, say researchers.

Cleaning products contain a diverse group of chemicals that are used in a wide range of industries and occupations. The potential of these products to cause or aggravate asthma has recently been recognized, says a group of researchers led by Dr. Kenneth D. Rosenmann, M.D., of Michigan State University.

What they found, in their study published in the May issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, was that in four states studied (California, Massachusetts, Michigan and New Jersey), 236 of the 1,915 confirmed cases of occupational asthma were associated with cleaning products. Eighty percent of the reports were of new-onset asthma, while 20 percent were work-aggravated asthma.

Most of the workers reporting asthma were women (75 percent); white, non-Hispanic (68 percent) and 45 years or older (64 percent). Most exposures occurred in medical settings (39 percent), schools (13 percent) and hotels (6 percent), and the workers were most likely janitors/cleaners (22 percent), nurse/nurse's aide (20 percent) or clerical staff (13 percent).

The researchers pointed out that in some cases, improper mixing of chemicals bleach and ammonia or acid and bleach caused the cases of reported work-related asthma. "Employee training and education for safe handling of cleaning products and review of the adequacy of warning messages on labels of cleaning products are actions that would potentially prevent inappropriate mixing," said researchers.

They also recommended further studies to characterize the specific agents and the circumstances of their use associated with asthma. In the meantime, adequate ventilation, improved warning labels and Material Safety Data Sheets and workplace training and education are needed to reduce the number of cases of work-related asthma attributed to exposure to cleaning supplies.

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