OBJECTIVES: To study the role of exposure, atopy, and smoking in the development of laboratory animal allergy (LAA) in a retrospective cohort study. METHODS: Between 1977 and 1993, 225 people received a pre-employment screening when they started a job at a Dutch research institute where they were going to work with laboratory animals. After active follow up 136 of them (60.4%) could be traced and were sent a questionnaire with extensive questions on allergic symptoms, smoking habits, and job history. 122 people (89.7%) sent back a completed questionnaire. Those who were accepted for a job at the institute and did not have allergic symptoms at the start of the job were selected as cohort members. After selecting people with complete data on start and end date of jobs, exposure intensity, atopy, and smoking, the cohort consisted of 99 people with an average time of follow up of 9.7 years. LAA was defined as a positive response to a set of questions in the questionnaire. The mean number of hours a week a person was exposed to laboratory animals at entry of the cohort was used as a surrogate for exposure, and was divided into four categories. RESULTS: 19 cohort members (19.2%) reported LAA. More people with asthmatic symptoms were found in the high exposure categories. More atopic than non-atopic people reported asthmatic symptoms (13% v 6%). The mean time until development of symptoms of LAA was about 109 months in non-atopic people (n = 9), and 45 months in atopic people (n = 10) (t test; P < 0.05). Time until development of symptoms of LAA was shorter at a higher intensity of exposure, except for those exposed for less than two hours a week. A proportional hazard regression analysis showed that exposure and atopy were significant determinants of LAA. An increased relative risk (RR) was found for non-atopic people exposed to laboratory animal allergens for more than two hours a week. Atopic people had an even higher risk when exposed to laboratory animals for more than two hours a week (RR above 7.3). Sex, smoking, and age were not risk factors. More atopic than non-atopic people were absent from work or transferred because of allergies. CONCLUSIONS: This study showed that exposure and atopy are significant predictors of LAA and that the risk of developing LAA remained present for a much longer period (> 3 y) than considered before.
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