Allergies in the Office – 10 Common Allergens
10 Agents That Can Trigger An Allergic Reaction
Allergies at home are certainly an interference with your life but when allergies occur at the office your ability to function effectively at your job becomes a major problem. I have identified 10 agents that may exist in the office that can trigger an allergic reaction.
The agents that cause allergies are referred to as Allergens. Some of these allergens may exist at home, or at least outside the office but then you can get rid of them (at home). At work, you’re stuck in an environment where those triggering allergens may exist and you cannot control them, and you can’t just leave.
An allergy is actually your body’s overreacting to a foreign substance—the allergen—where the consequences are often debilitating. In the immune system’s effort to get rid of this foreign substance, the body is actually attacking itself.
Here are 10 things that can make your work environment a chore or a nightmare—reducing your productivity, resulting in suffering, and even force you out of a job.
- Mold: Mold exists everywhere—outdoors, as well as indoors. Often molds from outdoors, are also found indoors—the office in this case. The problem is when mold finds an ideal environment indoors, (heat, moisture, a food source), and they multiply. At some point, they reach a threshold when your immune system reacts for most people. Your system can tolerate the outdoors’ levels but not the indoors—elevated—levels of mold. Most mold “allergens” cause irritation or respiratory effects. The much-maligned “Black Mold” is not truly any more toxic than most other molds—it just tends to find an ideal growth environment indoors. At least five to ten percent of the population has an allergic reaction to some form of mold.
- Animal Dander: We love pets but sometimes we can’t tolerate being around them. Cat dander seems to be the greatest culprit, although dogs, birds, guinea pigs, cows and horses, and most other domestic animals can result in an allergy. You don’t have to bring that cat—or the cow—into the office to adversely affect co-workers. Animal dander on clothes is more than enough to trigger an allergic response to someone’s immune system if they have been sensitized.
- Dust Mites: These unseen microscopic creatures can exist in the office, as well as the home. They can exist in the air, the floor and even the air handling system. Remember the air handlers are part of the “environment” in which we work. Dust mites are notorious for triggering an allergic reaction such as an asthmatic attack. Office cleaning and ductwork cleaning can vary immensely from building-to-building and office-to-office, missing or avoiding the places where dust mites thrive. The ductwork in any building should be cleaned every 3 to 5 years.
- Fragrances: The evils of the many scents that people use are becoming more and more of a problem. Not just perfumes and aftershave lotions, but deodorants, air fresheners, body powders can be offensive to many and causing allergies in some. Many businesses now have “scent-free” policies. Canada seems to be ahead of the U.S. in this arena where some cities and provinces have strict “scent-free” requirements in workplaces.
- Pollen: Most of the problems with pollen are outdoors. The important thing to remember is that pollen volume and variety may be quite different between where you live and where you work. Live in suburbia and work downtown! or vice versa. You may feel the effects of hay fever (pollen) at work not because it is in the office but it is outdoors where you work AND some of that pollen will get into the office. Offices—even hospitals—don’t have HEPA filters in their air handlers. Likely the filters will remove some pollen but not all. So it may be just where the office is located. No wonder you feel better at home or on weekends there is less pollen where you live than where you work. But office plants may also be a problem.
- Cleaning Supplies: Custodial supplies can contain a host of chemicals. Alkaline Cleaners—most for sinks, toilets, and drains. Acid Cleaners—citric acid degreasers and spot removers. Solvents such as mineral spirits, acetone, alcohols, paint strippers, disinfectants, chlorinated cleaners, sanitizers, on and on and on. Some people are even allergic to the odorants put in cleaners—lemon scent, lilac scent!
- Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde and other aldehydes are often components of glues for woods and synthetics, furniture finishes, permanent press resins in curtains, and cloth furniture. Of course, they may also be a component of insulations, weather sealants, even some clothing (mostly imported). Formaldehyde can cause a variety of allergic reactions—respiratory, and skin rashes—skin rashes can be expressed as redness but also point to irritation that is often mistaken for bug/insect bites! Formaldehyde is also a suspect cancer-causing agent. OSHA has set specific workplace limits for formaldehyde and numerous states and other countries have set a variety of “safe” limits of exposure.
- Paints: There are now three (3) different types of paints—all of which may result in an allergic reaction.
- The first is the solvent-based paints with their alcohols, ketones, lacquer thinners, mineral spirits, acetates, aromatics, aliphatics, and petroleum solvents. These “oil-based” paints mostly have strong odors because the solvent evaporates as the drying process. Most have strong offensive odors and are easy to recognize, as well as irritate your eyes, nose, lungs, and skin.
- The second is water-based paints. In an effort to reduce solvents (which are also ozone depleters), latex, alkyd, or acrylates paints were developed. Fortunately, most latex paints are not from material rubber latex but from petroleum. But, they generally have some form of water-soluble solvent, like alcohol, in them. They very often contain a biocide to reduce mold. The biocides can affect some people.
- The third types of paints are resin-based paints. The drying agent has been eliminated because the “A” Component is the paint and the “B” Component is a polymerizing agent that causes the surface to dry. The most common “B” Component is an isocyanate. Isocyanates can be strong, allergic sensitizers usually respiratory in nature resulting in an asthmatic reaction. The biggest problem is that once sensitized, that person can get an asthmatic reaction at a fraction of the amount that caused the initial reactions. Some people can’t even go into a paint store, or sit in their repaired, and re-painted, an automobile without an asthmatic reaction.
- Latex: Latex is not just in paints, but latex gloves, rubber bands, balloons, plastic bottles, tubing, medical supplies, and office décor. This latex is the true rubber tree latex which has a much higher rate of allergic reactions than the petroleum-based “latex” in paints. Sadly, most people who are allergic to rubber latex are also allergic to some fruits and vegetables such as bananas, kiwis, avocados, chestnuts and tomatoes making the treatment process much more difficult and confusing.
- Stress: Plain old office stress can lead to all sorts of allergic reactions; rashes, hives, respiratory problems, memory loss, general malaise. Our bodies react to all forms of stress like the items in 1 through 9 and add stress to “be the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Our bodies don’t tell us what caused the allergies just that they occur. It can be 1 of the 10 or all of the 10. Maybe we are good at identifying and experiencing an allergy but we are very poor at identifying the cause or the source. Often we pick the most obvious one (formaldehyde) or the one we dislike the most (someone else’s perfume) when it’s actual work stress (the tyrant boss!) An allergist is the best hope for diagnosing the allergen that is triggering the allergy—as long as the physician has a good idea of the things in your life that may be the cause—both personal and professional. Too many people decide before they go to the doctor what is the allergy’s cause and miss what may be the true cause—or causes. The allergist can only test for the items you mention or he suspects may be the causative allergen.
Often sampling/testing the work environment can give us insights to possible exposure that may result in what is causing allergies in the office. An experienced Industrial Hygienist is the most likely person with the knowledge and experience to perform such testing.