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Reported incidence of occupational asthma in the United Kingdom, 1989–97


OBJECTIVES To examine trends in estimated population based incidence of occupational asthma by age, sex, occupation, geographical region, and causal agents based on 9 years of the Surveillance of Work Related and Occupational Respiratory Disease (SWORD) data.

METHODS In January 1989 the SWORD scheme for the surveillance of occupational respiratory disease was established in the United Kingdom to make good the lack of epidemiological information on the incidence of these diseases in the United Kingdom. Between 80% and 90% of chest and occupational physicians report voluntarily all new cases they see, on a monthly or random sampling basis. During the 9 years 1989–97, an estimated 25 674 new cases of occupational respiratory disease, including 7387 of occupational asthma, were reported. Suspected causal agents were classified into 44 categories and estimated annual incidences of asthma were calculated with denominators from the labour force survey.

RESULTS Overall, a third of the suspected causes of asthma were organic, a third chemical, 6% metallic, and the rest miscellaneous, or in 8%, unknown. There was evidence of an increase since 1989 in cases due to latex, and possibly glutaraldehyde, and an apparent drop since 1991 in the proportion of cases attributed to isocyanates. Incidences were higher in men than women and the disparity was especially marked in the population aged 45 years or more in which rates for men were at least twice those for women. Average annual rates per million workers for 1992–7 ranged from 7 (95% confidence interval (95% CI) 5 to 9) for the lowest risk group of professional, clerical, and service workers to 1464 (95% CI 968 to 2173) for coach and other spray painters. Except for laboratory technicians, all other occupations with rates over 100 were concerned with manufacturing and processing that used chemicals, metals, and organic materials. Incidences were two to three times higher in the north and midlands than in East Anglia and the south. The introduction of a sampling scheme in 1992 doubled estimates of reported incidence of occupational asthma, but there was little evidence of other temporal changes.

CONCLUSIONS The SWORD scheme has produced consistent estimates of the causes and incidence of occupational asthma as seen by chest and occupational physicians. It has allowed the epidemiology of occupational asthma in the population to be studied and high risk occupations to be identified. There is certainly more occupational asthma in the population than that which reaches specialists in occupational and chest medicine; therefore the incidence rates presented here are underestimates, but by how much remains unknown.

  • occupational asthma
  • incidence
  • regional differences

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