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Allergies on the Job

How to avoid sneezing at work

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Allergies on the Job

Just imagine for a moment the upswing our daily lives might take with a real reduction of allergic reactions in our places of work.

Just imagine for a moment the upswing our daily lives might take with a real reduction of allergic reactions in our places of work.

In reality when we saunter off to work each day with aspirations of being productive, making a difference, or lending a hand, the list of allergens we encounter may put a serious stop to those plans. Once we’ve left the relative safety of home, how can we reduce our exposure to allergens and side step the results of mild, moderate, or even severe reactions in the workplace? Avoidance might be simpler than you think.

Not everyone suffers from allergies, but the numbers are increasing. With more than 40 percent of Canadians transporting themselves to work every day, the number of people who come into contact with an allergen on the job adds up.

According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Alliance, “More recent studies suggest that nearly 4 percent of the US population, or 1 in 25 Americans, is at risk for food allergy alone, a rate much higher than noted in the past. Canadian trends are thought to mirror those of the US, given similarities in lifestyle.”

Unlike colds, which eventually disappear, seasonal or daily exposure to allergens can mean prolonged misery. Some reactions, however, can be immediate.

In general, allergies are characterized by hypersensitivity to everyday substances (allergens). These set off reactions in the body that can produce a variety of symptoms we’ve come to know: itchiness, red and watery eyes, swelling of the affected area, and wheezing. At its most dangerous, an allergic reaction can cause anaphylactic shock, a medical emergency in which the person has difficulty breathing and may lose consciousness.

Conventional medical treatment for allergies may include immunotherapy, the administration of allergy shots to desensitize the sufferer over time. Medications such as steroids, antihistamines, or epinephrine are sometimes prescribed. Those with known serious allergies may want to carry a prepackaged syringe with epinephrine that can be administered in an emergency. See your health practitioner for advice on where to purchase one. (See sidebar for natural remedies.)

As individuals we can take steps to avoid allergens. Employers can also introduce some simple naturally based solutions to reduce work environment exposure. The goal is to minimize workers’ contact with allergens and to increase their ability to work productively.

Common airborne allergens

Mold
Molds can occur in any dark place where the conditions are right: high humidity or moisture, an organic nutrient substrate, mold spores, and oxygen. There are about 1,000 molds commonly found in North America, but the actual type of mold is less significant. The buildup of mold growth is what we are concerned with. It is the mold spores which reproduce and cause allergic responses.

Often difficult to detect, spores are prevalent and reproduce at a rapid rate around plumbing systems, leaky roofs, and less than perfectly sealed building foundations. Conversely, fully sealed buildings can result in poor air exchange and lead to an accumulation of indoor moisture. Wood-framed structures are also at greater risk of developing mold because wood provides a healthy organic growth medium.

Allergic rhinitis can be caused by inhaled mold allergens. It is characterized by inflammation of the mucous membranes, sneezing, runny nose, watering eyes, or mucosal infections. Exposure to mold spores can also lead to an asthma attack in some individuals.

Airborne mold allergens can be prolific, but there are simple solutions employers can put into place to decrease workplace exposure. Drying out murky, damp places is the best strategy here.

Employers can alleviate concerns by having a professional check for molds in areas most likely steeped in humidity. If possible, indoor air should be monitored, with relative humidity maintained between 30 to 50 percent.

Dust mites
For some of us with allergies, having millions of dust mites surrounding us in the workplace is not at all good company. At home we work diligently in our personal and family spaces to remove these little aggravators from our bedding and soft surfaces. Like molds, dust mites thrive in moist places, with an added preference for warm environments. In the workplace, carpets can be the perfect breeding ground for dust mites. Upholstered furniture is also a favourite location for the little creatures.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
VOCs, ubiquitous in any industrialized society, are carbon-based particles found in many materials that off-gas into the environment under normal indoor conditions. The most common source of VOC emissions in the workplace is solvent-based chemicals. They affect our indoor air quality by emitting chemicals such as ozone, inorganic gases, and formaldehyde. Examples of possible solvents in the work environment include paint, wood-finishing materials, carpeting, adhesives, and photocopy machine toners.

Compromised air quality can cause allergic respiratory symptoms. These symptoms vary from sneezing to more serious asthmatic symptoms, and possibly to chronic respiratory disease over the longer term. There is some positive news, however. Combatting inflammation-causing airborne enemies is a relatively simple matter.

In the office, employers can locate equipment that uses toner in a well-ventilated area so workers won’t be exposed to VOCs and toner particulate. A separate ventilated room is preferable. As employees, we can help by following the rule, think before you print.

If there is an opportunity to paint workplace surfaces, products with a low VOC content should be chosen. The addition of a colorant can elevate VOC level, so the goal should be to use paints with VOC levels as close to zero as possible, including pigment. Low-VOC paints and products offer the additional benefit of giving off a less detectable odour.

Many manufacturing facilities, larger offices, and industrial workplaces have large-scale heating ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems throughout their work environs. Routine maintenance will ensure good air quality by removing allergenic culprits.

Part of that regular maintenance is changing the filters in the air ventilation system. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) recommends using filters rated highly efficient at removing air particles. LEED also advises choosing filters made with synthetic material that will not allow microbial growth or shed fibres into the air.

Cleaning air ducts also reduces allergens in the atmosphere. Plus, regular removal of water from humidifier tanks or refrigerator cooling coils greatly reduces standing water and moisture, which inhibits mold growth.

If replacing soft upholstered and carpeted surfaces with more cleanable corks, leathers, laminate, or wood flooring isn’t in the cards, regular and thorough cleaning is an excellent alternate choice. Carpet, upholstery, drapery, and blinds should be cleaned with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter vacuum to remove dust. Alternatively, a central vacuum system will remove particles to the exterior of the building.

Regular vacuuming is an effective strategy for reducing dust, but it can also stir up dust mites and make them temporarily airborne. The little critters should be wiped away with a damp cloth after they’ve landed on hard surfaces such as desks, workstations, and countertops. Add a little vinegar to the cleaning solution to further inhibit allergens.

Fragrance
Though washing, deodorizing, and spritzing with perfumed products brings promises of alluring glances from across the office, there may be unintended results. Once-friendly co-workers may view the wall of scent as an annoyance and may even experience severe allergic reactions.

In 2007 the American Contact Dermatitis Society awarded fragrances the title Allergen of the Year. In a related article, Frances J. Storrs of Oregon Health and Science University cited the research and expanded on the ubiquity of fragrance: “There are more than 2,800 fragrance ingredients listed in the database of the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials, Inc. (RIFM). At least 100 of these ingredients are known allergens.”

The definition of scented fragrance is broad, making it difficult to identify one single chemical compound as the main cause of an allergic reaction. Reported allergic responses to fragrance vary from sneezing to trouble breathing. Generally, fragrance appears to be more of an immediate-reaction irritant.

Reducing fragrance friction in the work community does not have to involve personal confrontation with the offender. Instead, employers can adopt a fragrance-free policy to reduce exposure to aromatic offenders. At one time, the restriction of fragrance in the workplace was limited mainly to health clinics and airplanes. In the last several years, however, as the result of increased public awareness of the problems scents can cause, the use of perfumes in workplaces appears to have diminished.

Luckily, scent-free products are becoming easier to find. Visit any natural health store, where the staff can answer any questions you have and suggest a variety of low- or no-scent products. Fragrance-free cosmetics and cleaning solutions have even made their way into many popular drugstores and grocery outlets.

Direct contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis occurs when skin is directly exposed to an allergen, such as a cleaning product, perfume, an industrial chemical, or latex. Reactions are usually limited to the skin area that came in contact with the allergen, can range from mild to severe, and may be delayed, appearing 24 hours or more after exposure. The affected area can erupt in an itchy rash or bumps, or become blistered and open.

Cleaning products

With so many different surfaces in the workplace, the number of different products used to clean them can create an allergenic cloud. Conversely, the not-so-practical alternative of refraining from all cleaning activities also allows allergens to thrive.

Luckily, employers can take simple steps to ensure workplace health. By scaling back the number of cleaning product purchases, employers can reduce costs, lessen inventory, and lower levels of allergic irritants. Workplace purchasers will be relieved that large container sizes of allergen-reduced cleaners are available through distributors.

Latex

Natural rubber latex is derived from the plant Hevea brasiliensis and is present in many workplace materials. This is especially true in health care facilities.

If employees are reporting rashes, hives, or localized irritations, employers may want to look into whether the rubberized material in commonly used items is causing the problem. Mouse pads, desk pads, adhesives, carpets, or rubber handgrips all may contain latex. Again, avoiding contact is key, and latex rubber-free products are available for those with sensitivities.

Allergens in food

Peanuts, nuts, soy, wheat, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk products, and food additives such as sulphites are the most common ingestible food-based allergens.

Taking a considerate approach with colleagues to reduce ingested allergen contact is an excellent idea. We can transport our nutritious meals in labelled, sealed containers, store them separately, and clean up after ourselves in common kitchen areas, wiping preparation equipment and dining surfaces after each use. Gone are the days of washable cloths in office and workplace situations. Recyclable nonbleached paper can be used to reduce allergen transfer in all work areas by reducing contact incidents.

In the quest to purge allergens from the workplace, it’s reassuring to know that there are practical actions that can be taken. Introducing even a few measures to reduce contact are certain to increase overall wellness and productivity.

May this spring bring fewer symptoms for allergen sufferers, offering a certain lightness at work and bounce in each step.

Natural allergy remedies

Though definitive scientific research may not be available to confirm the efficacy of each of these commonly used natural allergy remedies, many people using them do find relief.

  • butterbur
  • quercetin
  • stinging nettle
  • bromelain
  • vitamin C
  • echinacea
  • grapeseed extract
  • pycnogenol
  • honey
  • spirulina

The murky meaning of hypoallergenic

The term hypoallergenic is applied to substances that have a lower potential to cause an allergic reaction. It is neither a legal term nor a medical one, so it is often left to the interpretation of product manufacturers. Also, people react differently and to varying degrees when they are in contact with allergens, so what is hypoallergenic for one person may not be for the next. Simply put, hypoallergenic cleaners are the best bet— but not a sure bet.

Using naturally based cleaning products is a simple and effective way to reduce allergens in our home and work spaces. Check out a natural health retailer for effective and hypoallergenic cleaning products.

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