Supermarket bakery workers risk developing asthma

January 25, 2005

Supermarket bakery workers are at considerable risk of developing work related asthma according to researchers from Imperial College London and the Royal Brompton Hospital.

Their study reported in the latest edition of the European Respiratory Journal, found that up to nine per cent of bakers, four per cent of bakery managers and three per cent of bakery assistants may have symptoms of asthma caused by working in supermarket bakeries.

Dr Andrew Brant, from Imperial College London and Royal Brompton Hospital, and one of the researchers comments: "While bakers' asthma is not a new phenomenon, this is the first time a study has been conducted in supermarket bakeries. Although the extent of bakers' asthma in supermarket bakeries is comparable with levels found in other traditional bakery settings, the research shows that this is a new occupational health issue which management and bakery staff need to be aware of. It is especially important given the high and increasing proportion of baking that now takes place in UK supermarkets."

The researchers looked at 239 employees from 20 in-store bakeries for a supermarket chain. They collected data from questionnaires on a number of respiratory symptoms including chest tightness, breathing difficulties, chest wheezing or whistling, running or itchiness of the nose and eyes and sneezing. They also used skin prick tests to check for allergies associated with baking. They found 15 percent of employees reported work-related asthma symptoms, and 26 percent had eye or nose work-related problems

The study also found high levels of sensitisation to ingredients involved in the baking process. Sensitisation to one or more allergens, including flour but also widely used additives, was found in around a quarter of those with work-related asthma symptoms. Sensitisation is the process by which repeated exposure to certain allergens causes hypersensitivity, inducing or exacerbating asthma symptoms.

Dr Paul Cullinan, from Imperial College London and Royal Brompton Hospital, and one of the researchers adds: "While bakers' asthma is unlikely to prove life threatening it can have a significant impact on quality of life, leading to poorer health and forcing most to change jobs. We discovered high levels of sensitisation to various ingredients, including flour, potentially increasing the likelihood of bakery workers developing work-related symptoms."
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Imperial College London

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