The workforce at a biotechnology plant producing citric acid by fermentation of molasses with a strain of Aspergillus niger was studied. A combination of a respiratory questionnaire and clinical assessment identified 18 subjects (4.9% of the workforce) with work related bronchospasm. In nine of these evidence of sensitisation to A niger was obtained by skin prick tests and radioallergosorbent test (RAST) using as an antigen an extract of the A niger culture fluid from the process. Of the 325 subjects without work related bronchospasm, only nine (2.7%) had a positive prick test. There were no subjects with symptoms of extrinsic allergic alveolitis. Investigation into the source of the antigen showed that whereas, in some areas of the plant, A niger spores were present, in others there were no detectable spores. In these areas, however, extracts of filters from air samplers were shown by RAST inhibition to contain A niger antigens, indicating that the culture fluid was generating airborne antigen. RAST inhibition studies showed that the A niger culture fluid used in the process contained antigens that were not present in a commercially available A niger extract, thus emphasising the importance in this type of investigation of using antigens prepared from material to which the workers are exposed.
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