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May 7, 2019

MSU raises awareness of work-related asthma

Asthma affects some 600,000 adults in Michigan, about 10 percent of the adult population, yet many sufferers are unaware their disease might be caused or aggravated by exposure in the workplace.

“It’s a problem that is not well recognized but, if properly addressed, can markedly reduce asthma symptoms and improve quality of life,” said Kenneth Rosenman, a Michigan State University College of Human Medicine professor and chief of its Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. “Asthma is both a preventable disease and a very treatable disease. Minimize exposure – that’s the key.”

Physicians, employers and asthma sufferers should become aware of the triggers that cause or aggravate work-related asthma, Rosenman said, including substances as common as cleaning solutions, paint fumes and dust. 

The MSU College of Human Medicine is initiating a campaign to raise awareness of work-related asthma. Its Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine offers a wealth of information and resources on work-related asthma on its website, including links to brochures from the American Lung Association, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the American Thoracic Society.

Rosenman estimated that as many as 50% of Michigan adults who have asthma have work-related asthma. 

“People know they have asthma, but they don’t know their triggers,” Rosenman said. 

Generally, individuals think about other allergens, such as pollen or their cat, and often overlook allergens and irritants in the workplace. 

An obvious indication that asthma is work-related is if symptoms decline or disappear away from work, although repeated exposure can lead to chronic asthma.

Those whose asthma is work-related are hospitalized at a higher rate than other asthma sufferers. An estimated 100 people die each year in Michigan from asthma, Rosenman said, adding that some deaths are due to exposure at work.

Yet asthma triggers can easily be avoided, he said. State and federal laws require employers to provide safe and healthy worksites. Employers can replace substances that trigger symptoms, improve ventilation, provide affected workers with respirators or transfer them to areas where they aren’t exposed.

Although medications can help reduce the inflammation of asthma, primary care physicians should think broadly about possible triggers and ways of eliminating them, including at work, Rosenman said, and patients should tell their doctors if they think their asthma is work-related.

“The first step is awareness,” Rosenman said.

If you think you have work-related asthma, call the MSU Department of Medicine Clinic at (517) 353-4830 to schedule an appointment with Rosenman.

By: Geri Kelley