Background: Occupational allergic respiratory symptoms in coffee workers have been frequently reported, but the ultimate cause of sensitization is still debated, castor bean being considered besides green coffee beans. Atopy and cigarette smoking have been suggested as promoting factors of sensitization for several occupational allergens.
Objective: This study was carried out to assess the prevalence of allergic respiratory symptoms and of sensitization to both green coffee beans and castor bean in the whole workforce of a coffee manufacturing plant. Furthermore we wanted to ascertain both the presence of castor bean antigens in the settled dust of the green coffee beans warehouse and the possible crossreactivity between the two beans. Meanwhile, the effect of smoking and atopy was considered.
Method: Two-hundred and eleven workers were examined. A questionnaire on oculorhinitis and asthma was administered and skin-prick tests for green coffee beans, castor bean and 15 common inhalant allergens were carried out. Isoelectric focusing, isoelectric focusing immunoblot and radioallergosorbent assay (RAST) inhibition were performed on samples of settled environmental dust from the green coffee area, as well as on castor bean and green coffee beans.
Results: Ten per cent of the workers complained of oculorhinitis alone and 16% of asthma (nearly always associated with oculorhinitis). The overall prevalence of skin-sensitization was: 15% for green coffee beans, 22% for castor bean, 22% for common allergens. Evidence of sensitization to occupational allergens was more common in smokers, with a more than twofold increase in relative risk. The strong association between skin positivity to common and occupational allergens suggests that atopy acts as an enhancing host factor towards occupational sensitization. The analysis of the dust confirmed the presence of castor bean antigens.
Conclusion: Our findings indicate that castor bean is the major cause of occupational sensitization among coffee workers, whereas smoking and atopy act as enhancing factors.