OBJECTIVES: To investigate the association between spontaneous abortion and work within dry cleaning units in the United Kingdom where the solvent perchloroethylene is used. METHODS: A retrospective occupational study of reproductive outcome in 7305 women aged 16 and 45 years, who were currently or previously employed in dry cleaning or laundry units in the United Kingdom. Data on workplace exposures and reproductive outcome were obtained by postal survey. A sample of reported spontaneous abortions was validated from medical records. Machine operator versus non-operator was used as a surrogate for exposure to perchloroethylene in dry cleaning units as no data on individual doses were available for women in this study. RESULTS: The response rate was higher for current workers of dry cleaning units (78%), than for past workers of dry cleaning units (46%). Similarly, the response for current laundry workers (65%) was higher than that for past laundry workers (40%). Overall, the reproductive characteristics of the respondents were similar to expectation. Examination of exposure at the time of pregnancy, however, showed that the rate of spontaneous abortion varied according to the type of work the women did during the pregnancy or in the three months before conception: being lowest for pregnancies not exposed to either dry cleaning or laundry work (10.9%), higher for those exposed to laundry work (13.4%), and higher still for those exposed to dry cleaning work (14.8%). Within the group of pregnancies exposed to dry cleaning, the proportion was higher if the woman reported that she worked as an operator at the time of the pregnancy (17.1%) rather than as a non-operator (11.6%). Adjusted odds ratios for the period 1980-95 showed that the risk was over 50% higher in operators than non-operators (p = 0.04). The physical demands of the two jobs are likely to be similar. A higher risk was found when work as a dry cleaning operator was compared with no work in either dry cleaning or laundry units during pregnancy. Exposure to dry cleaning as a non-operator was not associated with any excess risk. CONCLUSIONS: Women who worked in dry cleaning shops at the time of their pregnancy or in the three months before who described themselves as operators were about half as likely again to report that their pregnancy ended in a spontaneous abortion than women who described themselves as non-operators.
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