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Australian workplaces contain 227 substances that trigger asthma

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There are 227 substances commonly found in Australia’s workplaces that can contribute to adult-onset asthma, a new study from Perth’s Curtin University has found.

According to the study, published in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, between 1000 and 3000 new cases of asthma in Australia annually could be attributed to workplace exposures. However, as there is no over-arching internationally established and peer-reviewed list of occupational asthmagens, understanding the triggers of occupational asthma has been difficult.

As such, the National Health and Medical Research Council and SafeWork Australia commissioned scientists at Curtin’s School of Public Health (in collaboration with Monash University, University of Sydney and University of Western Australia) to compile “the first comprehensive and inclusive list of Australian occupationally-relevant asthmagens”.

By working through work health and safety classification databases in Australia and abroad, the scientists pulled together a list of asthmagens that were proved to have caused or exacerbated asthma, were used in occupational settings, and were prevalent in Australia.

The list includes 227 substances, largely chemicals and dusts, which fit into 27 categories. Common asthmagens include latex gloves, animals, flour, cleaning and sterilising agents, metals, pesticides, dyes and foods.

It is hoped that the list will help “focus policy and preventative practices and reduce the burden of occupational asthma” and further assist regulators in identifying the industries, occupations, specific activities, and “existing exposure standards that can be targeted to improve worker health and welfare”.

Professor Lin Fritschi of Curtin’s School of Public Health, who led the study, said: “Approximately one in six cases of adult-onset asthma is due to chemicals and dusts at work.

“Asthma can have immediate or latent life threatening health risks which can go on to significantly impact a person’s career and financial status.

“To be able to implement policy and preventative practices to reduce the burden of occupational asthma, we developed the first comprehensive and inclusive list of Australian occupationally relevant asthmagens.”

She suggested that carpenters, panel beaters, welders, laboratory workers and farmers were among the occupations likely to be exposed to the most asthmagens, but added that future studies will seek to provide further information on the occupations most at risk.

Workplace environments can improve brainpower

The affects of workplace environments on worker health has been of increasing interest to scientists recently, as people spend up to 99 per cent of their daily life indoors.

Last month, US researchers found that people who work in well-ventilated offices with below-average levels of indoor pollutants and carbon dioxide have “significantly higher” cognitive functioning scores than those who work in offices with typical levels.

According to the study, those who worked in environments with enhanced ventilation performed, on average, twice as well as those who worked in conventional office environments. Further, the researchers found that those working in environments with typical ventilation but a lower amount of volatile organic compounds (such as formaldehyde) performed around 61 per cent better.

The study also revealed that average scores for seven of the nine cognitive functions tested decreased as CO2 levels increased to levels “commonly observed in many indoor environments”.

As such, the scientists concluded that common indoor environments, such as offices, could be adversely affecting cognitive function, and that improving air quality could greatly increase the cognitive function performance of workers.

Lead author of the study, Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science and director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment, said: “We spend 90 per cent of our time indoors and 90 per cent of the cost of a building are the occupants, yet indoor environmental quality and its impact on health and productivity are often an afterthought.

“These results suggest that even modest improvements to indoor environmental quality may have a profound impact on the decision-making performance of workers.”

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