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Spotlight: Cleaning Up the Workplace

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Spotlight: Cleaning Up the Workplace

Date Published:
Monday, January 16, 2012

At the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, health care workers began using powdered latex gloves to control the spread of infection. Over time, research linked both natural latex and powder to a high rate of allergies among health care professionals. Manufacturers responded by producing powder-free and synthetic latex gloves, which led to a dramatic reduction in the problem.

Dr. Ahmed Arif hopes he and others will have a similar impact on workplace safety related to cleaning products and asthma. The associate professor of epidemiology is a leading expert on these topics related to health care workers. "We’re in the early stages," he said.

Arif arrived at UNC Charlotte in 2007 from Texas Tech’s School of Medicine in Lubbock, Texas to teach courses in epidemiology, public health and environmental health in the department of public health sciences. He has studied occupational exposures and respiratory morbidity, respiratory morbidity among children and the elderly and chronic disease epidemiology. "My interest is in respiratory disease, and I have been focused on different types of exposures, particularly in the workplace," he explained.

Groundbreaking Studies

Arif is the lead author of two groundbreaking studies funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health that found a strong association between asthma and the workplace within certain industries. "We used existing data from National Center for Healthcare Statistics," he said of the nearly decade-old studies. "It turned out that health care professionals are a high-risk category for work-related asthma and asthma symptoms."

Although cleaning-related substances containing known carcinogens are routinely used in hospitals, Arif is at the forefront of research evaluating their potential adverse respiratory health effects on health care professionals. He designed and conducted the NIOSH-funded surveys to gather data for two subsequent studies to identify any connection between workplace exposure to cleaning-related chemicals and the development of work-related asthma in nurses, physicians, respiratory therapists and occupational therapists.

Both studies, published in "Occupational Environmental Medicine," an international peer reviewed journal covering developments in occupational and environmental health worldwide, found a correlation with the prevalence being higher among female health care professionals.

Janitors Surveyed

Arif’s findings also prompted him to survey 46 Charlotte janitors who work in hospitals, schools and homes about their health symptoms. "A lot of these chemicals are carcinogens but we really don’t know the effect of low-level exposure over a long period of time," he said.

Domestic cleaners reported experiencing more respiratory symptoms than those who work in businesses. He believes that is because home cleaners may take a more casual approach to using protective gear or following safety standards.

To date, there have been no changes in how these cleaning products are made or the way they are handled by health care professionals. However, Arif focuses on the analogy between his research and the evolution of protective gloves used in health care settings.

"It took a long time for changes to be made once powdered latex gloves were shown to be bad for health," he said. "I think it’s time that hospitals start exploring substituting products containing chemicals known to be respiratory irritants/sensitizers with products that may pose less health risk."