Workers exposed to detergent dust are at higher risk of asthma, but manufacturing changes in the 1960s supposedly eliminated the risk.
Now, an outbreak of asthma in a detergent manufacturing plant in England is raising concern that workers around the world may still be at risk, British scientists report.
In a study of 350 factory workers at the detergent factory, 50 were found to have asthma -- an alarmingly high rate not seen in factories in more than 30 years.
While once a common problem, the enzymes used in detergents were given a rubber coating to prevent asthma.
The researchers found that the works had a hypersensitivity to enzymes regardless of the fact that they were encapsulated in tiny rubber beads.
It appears that factory machinery caused some of the capsules to break open, exposing workers to the irritating powder.
"The survey identified a very high rate of enzyme-related sensitization and asthma in this factory," according to lead author Dr. Paul Cullinan of the Imperial College School of Medicine in London and colleagues.
The findings of the study are published in the Dec. 2 issue of The Lancet.
"Enzyme encapsulation is commonly believed to have effectively eliminated occupational asthma in the detergent industry. These results, from a factory that exclusively used encapsulates, indicate that this assumption is not necessarily correct," said the authors.
To avoid such outbreaks, the researchers warned that encapsulation is not enough.
Manufacturers need to continuously monitor air quality in the plants, worker health and the potency of the enzymes used to make the detergents.
by Virginia Sutcliffe