By Rebecca Smith, Medical Editor

3:16PM GMT 19 Jan 2009

Researchers in America found chemicals in wards run by nurses which could irritate the lungs including cleansers and antiseptics used on patients’ skin, chemicals used in the sterilisation of equipment and all purpose cleaners such as bleach.

Using powdered latex gloves, before they were phased out, and administering medicines in aerosol form also increased the risk of asthma, the study found.

There are 5.4m people in the UK currently receiving treatment for asthma and cleaning products and irritants in the workplace are known to be one of the causes of the disease.

The findings are based on a sample of 3650 healthcare workers including 941 nurses in Texas, America.

Cleaning instruments was associated with a 67 per cent increased chance of being diagnosed with asthma and nurses who were exposed to general cleaning products were 72 per cent more likely to have asthma.

Lead researcher Associate Professor Ahmed Arif, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, in America, said: “Substituting cleaning agents with environmentally friendly ‘green chemicals’ and using appropriate personal care protection could help minimise occupational exposures in this professional group.

Regular exposure to hospital cleaning products and disinfectants significantly increases nurses’ risks of developing asthma, indicates research published ahead of print in Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Nurses who were exposed to adhesives and solvents in the care of patients, which can involve using glue instead of stitches in wounds, were 50 per cent more likely to report symptoms of asthma but not a formal diagnosis.

Prof Arif said: “Nurses, especially those working in surgical or intensive care units, are regularly exposed to adhesives and adhesive removers during routine patient care activities. During our original walk-through surveys of hospitals, several adhesives and adhesive removers were identified.

“Some of the products containing these chemicals were available as sprays, which increase the potential for aerosolisation. To our knowledge, exposure to these types of compounds has not been previously linked to asthma among nursing professionals and, hence, warrants further evaluation.”

Other studies have found that 16 per cent of healthcare workers are thought to have work-related asthma.

The use of powdered latex gloves has been associated with increased risk of asthma and allergies and has been phased out in the UK since 2001.

Dr Elaine Vickers, Research Relations Manager at Asthma UK said: “This is a real problem as we know that up to 3,000 people in Britain develop occupational asthma each year. This study adds to previous research showing that nurses are at risk.

“We are actively encouraging all employers to safeguard their employees’ health by reducing their exposure to potential asthma risks. We advise that where possible, solid or liquid cleaning products should be used instead of sprays and that using as little of the product as possible and opening windows can also make a big difference.

“Anyone worried about the risks of developing asthma at work should speak to their doctor or call the Asthma UK Adviceline on 08457 01 02 03 .”

Originally published online at The Telegraph