Background: Recent studies in a few industries have shown that the likelihood of IgE-mediated sensitization increases with increasing exposure. The shape of the exposure-response relationships and modification by age, sex, and smoking habit has hardly been studied.
Objective: The purpose of this study was to determine exposure sensitization relationships for rat sensitization and to evaluate the influence of atopy, smoking habits, and sex.
Methods: Data from 3 cross-sectional studies in The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Sweden were used and involved 1062 animal laboratory workers. Selection criteria were harmonized, and this resulted in a study population of 650 animal laboratory workers (60.6% female) with less than 4 years of exposure. Air allergen levels were assessed previously and converted on the basis of an interlaboratory allergen analysis comparison. Available sera were analyzed for the presence of specific antibodies against common allergens (house dust mite, cat, dog, and grass and birch pollen) and work-related allergens (rat and mouse urinary proteins). Questionnaire items on work-related respiratory symptoms, hours worked with rats per week, job performed, smoking habits, and sex were used in this analysis
Results: The prevalence of work-related sensitization to rat urinary allergens (IgE >0.7 KU/L) was 9.7 % (n = 63). Thirty-six of the sensitized workers had work-related symptoms (asthma or rhinitis). Two hundred forty-eight workers (38.2%) were atopic (defined as specific IgE to 1 of the common allergens). The sensitization rate increased with increasing air allergen exposure. Atopic workers exposed to low levels of allergen had a more than 3-fold increased sensitization risk compared with nonexposed atopic workers. For atopic subjects, the risk increased little with increasing exposure, whereas for nonatopic subjects, a steadily increasing risk was observed. Smoking and sex did not modify the sensitization risk.
Conclusion: Rat urinary allergen-sensitization risk increased with increasing exposure intensity. Workers who were atopic had a clearly elevated sensitization risk at low allergen exposure levels.