Objective: Exposure to bioaerosols in the occupational environment of sawmills could be associated with a wide range of health effects, in particular respiratory impairment, allergy and organic dust toxic syndrome. The objective of the study was to assess the frequency of medical respiratory and general symptoms and their relation to bioaerosol exposure.
Method: Twelve sawmills in the French part of Switzerland were investigated and the relationship between levels of bioaerosols (wood dust, airborne bacteria, airborne fungi and endotoxins), medical symptoms and impaired lung function was explored. A health questionnaire was distributed to 111 sawmill workers.
Results: The concentration of airborne fungi exceeded the limit recommended by the Swiss National Insurance (SUVA) in the twelve sawmills. This elevated fungi level significantly influenced the occurrence of bronchial syndrome (defined by cough and expectorations). No other health effects (irritations or respiratory effects) could be associated to the measured exposures. We observed that junior workers showed significantly more irritation syndrome (defined by itching/running nose, snoring and itching/red eyes) than senior workers. Lung function tests were not influenced by bioaerosol levels nor dust exposure levels.
Conclusion: Results suggest that occupational exposure to wood dust in a Swiss sawmill does not promote a clinically relevant decline in lung function. However, the occurrence of bronchial syndrome is strongly influenced by airborne fungi levels.