Background: Diisocyanate chemicals are leading causes of occupational asthma (OA).
Methods: We conducted a cross-sectional study of 243 workers exposed to diphenylmethane diisocyanate (MDI) in a urethane mold plant that had been designed to minimize MDI exposure (levels were maintained below 0.005 ppm and were continuously monitored). All participants were screened by questionnaire and tests for serum antibodies to MDI-human serum albumin (HSA). On the basis of questionnaire responses, diagnoses were derived that included OA; non-OA; work-related and non-work-related rhinitis; and lower respiratory irritant responses. Serial peak expiratory flow rate studies were performed for 2 weeks in 43 workers with and in 23 workers without lower respiratory symptoms.
Results: Results of serial peak expiratory flow rate studies were abnormal in 3 (33%) of 9 workers with OA, in 2 (50%) of 4 with non-OA, and in 2 (9%) of 23 case control subjects. A significant association was found between peak flow rate variability and a questionnaire asthma diagnosis (chi 2 p < 0.002). Physicians confirmed three cases of OA, one of which occurred in a control worker who was free of symptoms. In all three cases asthma symptoms remitted after the worker left the workplace. Serum specific IgE and IgG levels were elevated in 2 of 243 workers, one of whom was prick test positive to MDI-HSA and had had cutaneous anaphylaxis after MDI exposure.
Conclusions: On the basis of these cases, specific work activities associated with exposure to MDI were identified and corrective measures were instituted. Strict control and monitoring of ambient MDI exposure was associated with a low prevalence of specific sensitization to MDI and a lower than expected prevalence of OA.