OBJECTIVE: Phytase is a phosphatase derived from Aspergillus niger that enhances phosphate bioavailability in the gut, and therefore has been increasingly used as an animal feed additive since the early 1990s. The aim of this study was to assess whether work related respiratory symptoms among workers in a so called premix factory producing animal feed additives, could be due to type I (mediated by immunoglobulin E (IgE) allergic sensitisation to phytase. METHODS: Preparations of specific IgE against phytase as used in the factory were assessed by enzyme immunoassay (EIA) in serum samples of 11 exposed workers who regularly handled the enzyme, in 11 office and laboratory workers of the same plant (non-exposed internal controls), and in 19 laboratory animal workers as external controls. The factory workers also completed a questionnaire on common and work related respiratory symptoms. RESULTS: Depending on the cut off level in the EIA for IgE, and the preparation used as coated allergen, antiphytase sensitisation was found in one to four of the 19 external controls, in one to five of the 11 internal controls, and in four to 10 of the 11 exposed workers. Strongest IgE reactions were found in four exposed workers who reported work related respiratory symptoms, particularly wheezing, and in one internal control who possibly had become sensitised because the structure of the factory building did not preclude airborne exposure in the offices and corridors of the plant. Experiments with inhibition EIA for IgE showed that (a) phytase of another commercial source was only partially cross reactive with phytase as used in the premix factory, and (b) phytase used as an animal feed additive did not cross react with common mould extracts, except for extracts from the species of origin, Aspergillus niger. The amount of IgE binding phytase in Aspergillus niger was estimated to be between 0.1% and 1% of the extractable mould proteins. CONCLUSIONS: Phytase is a potentially important new occupational allergen causing specific IgE immune responses among exposed workers. Such IgE sensitisation could probably be the cause of work related asthmatic and other respiratory symptoms if no effective measures are taken to prevent airborne occupational exposure at sites where phytase is handled, particularly during addition of enzyme preparations to animal feed.
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