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Respiratory symptoms and bronchial responsiveness among cleaning and disinfecting workers in the food industry


Objectives: To measure the levels of exposure to nitrogen trichloride (NCl3) and aldehydes among cleaning and disinfecting workers in the atmosphere of food industry plants during cleaning and disinfecting operations, and to examine how they relate to irritant and chronic respiratory symptoms—which are indices of pulmonary function—and bronchial hyperresponsiveness (BHR) to methacholine.

Methods: 175 exposed workers (M = 149; F = 26) recruited from 17 enterprises of the food industry (8 cattle, pig, and ovine slaughterhouses, 8 fowl slaughterhouses, and 1 catering firm) and 70 non-exposed workers (M = 52; F = 18) were examined. Concentration levels of NCl3 and aldhehydes were measured by personal sampling. Symptoms were assessed by means of a questionnaire and the methacholine bronchial challenge (MBC) test using an abbreviated method. Subjects were labelled MBC+ if forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) fell by 20% or more. The linear dose-response slope (DRS) was calculated as the percentage fall in FEV1 at last dose divided by the total dose administered.

Results: 277 air samples were taken in the 17 food industry plants. For a given plant and in a given workshop, the actual concentrations of chloramines, aldehydes, and quaternary ammonium compounds were measured with personal samplers during the different steps of the procedures. For each cleaner, a total exposure index Σ was calculated. A statistically significant concentration-response relationship was found between eye, nasal, and throat symptoms of irritation—but not chronic respiratory symptoms—and exposure levels or exposure duration. No relation was found between BHR and exposure.

Conclusions: These data show that cleaning and disinfecting workers in the food industry are at risk of developing eye, nasal, and throat irritation symptoms. Although NCl3 exposure does not seem to carry a risk of developing permanent BHR, the possibility of transient BHR cannot be ruled out entirely.

  • ACGIH, American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists
  • BHR, bronchial hyperresponsiveness
  • DRS, dose-response slope
  • FEV1, forced expiratory volume in one second
  • MBC, methacholine bronchial challenge

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