Edmonton

Baker's asthma: Edmonton study to examine long-term health hazards of flour dust

A new Edmonton-based study will examine how the health of professional bakers is affected by exposure to flour.

Prolonged exposure to flour dust can lead to allergies, asthma

Prolonged exposure to flour dust can cause myriad health problems, including occupational asthma. (Shutterstock)

A new Edmonton-based study will examine how the health of professional bakers is affected by exposure to flour.

Breathing flour dust day after day can be harmful to lung health, said Nicola Cherry, a University of Alberta occupational epidemiologist who will lead the study.

Cherry's research, which was recently granted provincial funding, will examine which particles in the common baking ingredient are the most harmful to pulmonary function.

"Smaller particles can actually get deeper into the lungs," Cherry said in an interview Tuesday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. "Some flour particles are quite big actually, and although we can actually see them in the air, it probably doesn't do a lot of harm.

Flour dust easily inhaled

"What we need to do is measure the smaller particles that can get into the lungs and cause allergic reactions."

During the baking process, flour becomes airborne and much like dust is easily inhaled.

The dangers of prolonged exposure to flour dust on a pulmonary function have been well documented. Bakers often develop breathing problems after prolonged exposed to yeast, or to cereal grains such as wheat and rye.

Flour dust is a hazardous substance and a respiratory sensitizer, and is known to cause allergic rhinitis (runny nose) or conjunctivitis (itchy eyes), said Cherry.

The more they are exposed, the more likely they are to be affected.- Nicola Cherry

Flour is also an irritant and may give rise to short-term respiratory, nasal and eye symptoms or may provoke asthma attacks in individuals with pre-existing breathing problems, Cherry said.

The condition is often referred to as "baker's asthma."

"About 20 percent of flour is protein, and protein has the potential to cause allergies, to cause asthma," said Cherry, a professor with the U of A's department of medicine.

"We're looking particularly at two sorts of proteins. One is wheat allergen, and that is part of the flour. And the second is alpha amylase, which is added to the bread mix to break down some of the sugars."

Flour is often full of alpha amylase. In professional kitchens, the enzyme is added to flour-based recipes to make the yeast rise better in the oven. But the enzymes can also act as airborne allergens.

As the particles float around, they are inhaled and become lodged in lung tissue. After years of continued exposure, the particles can cause chronic inflammation.

"Alpha amylase has been found to cause allergies in bakers who have been exposed over the past 20 years or so," Cherry said.

"We found, the more they are exposed, the more likely they are to be affected."

If bakery employees who are sensitive to flour dust continue to be exposed to elevated levels of dust, they first develop eye or nose symptoms.

The longer the person is exposed, the greater the risk of developing allergies and asthma.

'The exposure is likely there'

In order to reduce the occupational hazard, some countries including Holland and the United States have proposed workplace exposure limits for flour dust.

Exposure can also be reduced with masks or improved ventilation systems in professional kitchens, said Cherry.

Her study will focus on baker trainees preparing to enter the profession. Study participants are currently being recruited from the NAIT and SAIT culinary programs, she said.

'If you can see big clouds of flour you should try to work more carefully."- Nicola Cherry

While study participants are learning about the risks of prolonged exposure, there is a lack of awareness in the industry, said Cherry.

"So the young people that we are recruiting now are becoming aware of these problems, but I think the old-style bakers who have been there for many years probably aren't."

For home chefs, the risk of developing breathing problems is very low, said Cherry. However, people who are baking every day should consider taking precautions.

"The exposure is likely there," Cherry said. "Unless they're baking every day it's probably not going to be enough to cause problems. But, in general, if you can see big clouds of flour you should try to work more carefully and dampen down the flour."

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