The air in your office may give you asthma, study says

COVID-19 may not be the only reason to steer clear of your office.

In a new study of 47 asthma patients presented this month at the European Respiratory Society International Congress, researchers at the Birmingham Regional Occupational Lung Disease Service determined that poor ventilation and pollutants wafting around common office spaces can cause workers to develop asthma.

The connection between your office and asthma

Most people assume asthma is a condition you get diagnosed with early in life. Though that’s true for the most part, occupational asthma, a type of asthma caused by exposure to inhaled irritants in the workplace, can occur at any point in your life.

Thankfully, the condition can be reversed simply by avoiding the irritants that cause asthma. The problem is that everything from printer toner to wall paint can become sensitizers, which are substances that induce an allergic reaction after continued exposure.

“Any work environment can induce occupational asthma if it harbors a respiratory sensitizer,” says the study’s Dr. Christopher Huntley, from the Birmingham Regional Occupational Lung Disease Service at University Hospitals Birmingham National Health Service Foundation Trust in the U.K. “This is a substance that triggers an irreversible allergic reaction, such as paint spray or dust. … We usually think of an office as a safe environment, so it’s possible that when asthma is diagnosed in office workers, occupational causes may be overlooked. As a result, there has been very little research on this issue.”

The most common office allergens

The physicians behind the new report have been diagnosing more and more cases of occupational asthma in patients who work in office environments. As cases continued to come in, they were able to identify three primary triggers:

Pollutants in an average office: printer toner, floor tile adhesive, mold and cleaning products.

Poor ventilation in an average office: mold in air conditioning and ventilation shafts that had been installed incorrectly.

The immediate office environment: nearby workshops, paint, and vehicle fumes.

“If a worker develops occupational asthma, workplace adjustments can and should be made to improve asthma symptoms,” Huntley said.

Office allergens hurt profits

Occupational asthma patients who requested that changes be made to their office’s environment were 100 times more likely to quit if nothing got done.

“We discovered some key causes to be aware of in an office environment, but there will certainly be others,” Huntley said. “If a worker develops occupational asthma, workplace adjustments can and should be made to help retain staff.”

Overhauling the layout of a work environment may be time-consuming and costly, but it’s something every employer should consider. Firms that did make accommodations for workers who reported health issues subsequently reported fewer sick days than firms that did not.

If renovation is out of the question, companies may want to toy around with hybrid work models.

“Working from home has been useful for patients in both establishing their diagnoses and as a form of non-pharmacological treatment,” Huntley said. “Allowing workers with occupational asthma to continue working from home may help keep office workers in their jobs as they require fewer sick days.”

Read more about office health here.