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Getting Asthma is Risky Business if You're in Entertainment

New analysis of occupational health also finds other industries where the risk of developing asthma is high

WEDNESDAY, July 31, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- If you think a job working on high-tension electric lines is high-risk, think again.

Entertainment industry workers, like artists, designers and photographers, have a five-times-greater risk of developing work-related asthma than workers in other industries, a new study says.

Farmers, truckers, forestry workers, teachers and health sector employees were among others who faced a twofold higher risk of developing asthma, the research also found.

The study, an analysis of a six-year national health survey, revealed that 3.7 percent of those surveyed had work-related asthma, and about 11.5 percent had work-related wheezing.

Although the researchers can't assume a casual relationship, there's a "strong association," says Dr. Ahmed Arif, first author of the study and an assistant professor of epidemiology at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center.

When extended to the population as a whole, the findings mean that if workplace exposure were eliminated, 36.5 percent of asthma cases would be prevented, and 28.5 percent of wheezing would be prevented, says Arif, who conducted the research while he was a doctoral student at the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center.

The study, just published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, also found that individuals with allergies were most at risk of work-related symptoms, and allergies were reported most frequently in the 30-to-49 age group.

The authors of the study speculate that the increased risk in the entertainment sector might be because of exposure to chemicals used in art media, stage-set production, theatrical make-up and photography.

The other industries with a high risk for developing asthma included agriculture, forestry and fishing; rubber, plastics and leather products; lumber and wood products; electrical machinery; transportation equipment and trucking; wholesale trade, repair services; health related services; educational services; and justice, public order and safety industries. All of these had a greater-than-twofold increase in risk.

These increased risks, the authors say, could be explained by exposure to various potential irritants: insecticides and fertilizers in the case of agricultural workers, and dust, paint and asphalts in the case of construction workers.

Existing studies estimate that about one-in-10 adults with asthma has work-related asthma, says Dr. Paul Blanc, chief of the division of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.

Because this study is broader, looking at people whose asthma was caused and also aggravated by work conditions the numbers are higher, he notes.

"It's not surprising, because most of the other studies haven't been able to look at asthma symptoms made worse at work," Blanc says.

Occupational asthma is the most frequently reported diagnosis of work-related respiratory disease in developed nations. Some 250 agents (solvents, chemicals, etc.) in the workplace have been identified as causes of occupational asthma.

A national survey conducted from 1980 to 1982 estimated that 24 percent of the total workforce in the United States was exposed to occupational asthmagens. An estimated 20 million U.S. workers are potentially exposed to occupational asthmagens.

And while no one is really sure how many cases of asthma can be traced to workplace exposures, estimates range anywhere from 2 percent to 36 percent of all adult asthma in the developed world.

The authors of this latest study looked at data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics as part of the third national health and nutrition examination survey (NHANES III) between 1988 and 1994.

NHANES III did not include any questions directly related to occupational asthma, so the researchers correlated information related to physician-diagnosed asthma, work-related respiratory symptoms and how long people had worked in specific industries.

"Exploiting these large studies is one way of coming at it from a public health perspective," Blanc says. "You want to raise the level of suspicion. Risk factors at the workplace are not suspects that remain innocent until absolutely proven guilty. It's the people who are exposed who have the right of protection, not the chemical."

The study is really a call to look at certain industries in further detail, Blanc says.

"When you do this kind of screening study, you're generating areas for investigation and it's different from saying, 'I believe entertainment is at particular risk,'" he adds.

Though the findings are interesting, Blanc says all the industries mentioned deserve further scrutiny.

The findings may also be good news for prevention efforts. "There's been an awful lot of attention to the genetics of asthma, but if the issue is prevention, then the question may not be genetics but environmental," Blanc says.

What To Do

For more information on occupational asthma, visit the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or the American Lung Association

SOURCES: Paul Blanc, M.D., professor of medicine and chief, division of occupational and environmental medicine, University of California, San Francisco; Ahmed Arif, M.D., PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology, Texas Tech Health Sciences Center, Lubbock; August 2002 Occupational and Environmental Medicine
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