Allergies on the Job: 7 Workplace Irritants

"This is the lab that produces mice. We grow them and send out about 2 million of them to other labs for research," she said.

And yet, Paigen is allergic to mice and gets asthmatic symptoms when she's around them or near people who have been.

She developed an allergy to mice in her first research job out of college, so she explored other areas of genetics that would not put her in contact with the rodents.

She dabbled with bacterial genetics and then human genetics.

But after 10 years away -- without any symptoms -- the excitement in the field of mouse genetics enticed her once again.

"Scientists were making more progress in the genetics of disease in mice than in humans," she said. "So I came back to the mouse."

Paigen tried to cope as best she could.

"I didn't go in the mouse room," she said. "I didn't touch them. And I was pretty careful to avoid my exposure."

Despite these efforts, she had trouble breathing and "had such severe asthma, I thought I would have to stop working."

Rather than retire, she decided to do something to solve the problem. Fifty thousand to 100,000 workers in the U.S. have a significant mouse allergy, noted Paigen.

With the cooperation of the director of the lab, who happened to be Paigen's husband, scientists there did a lot of studies on the cause of mice allergies and ways to reduce the allergens employees were exposed to.

According to Paigen, there's a protein in mouse urine that's very potent, and this is often the allergic irritant.

"This protein is easily airborne and it's sticky. It clings to the walls, and it gets on your clothes," she said.

"We measured the levels of this protein throughout the building, and we found it in the library and where people ate lunch."

As a result of these findings, the lab made major changes. They improved the ventilation in some areas of the building. They put mice in a newer type of cage that filtered the allergenic protein from the air.

They gave every new employee a lung function test and skin test to see if they had mice allergies, and then retested them six months later to catch symptoms early.

And they continued their monitoring efforts: During the 1990s, 50 percent of Jackson Lab employees had symptoms -- sneezing, watery eyes, skin rashes, or asthma -- on a daily basis.

"Now that figure is closer to 10 percent," said Paigen.

No doubt, Paigen and her colleagues are breathing a little easier as a result.

Mold Allergies

In New York, mold is very common, noted Dr. Hale Yarmohammadi, an allergy and asthma specialist at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.

"It's an old city and many of the buildings have water leaks that are tough to get rid of," Yarmohammadi said.

Mold, she explained, can wreak havoc with your health in two different ways.

"One is an allergic reaction, but not everyone gets this," she said. "And the other problem results from the toxins the mold secretes."

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People often get vague symptoms from mold exposure, said Yarmohammadii. They might get headaches or feel nauseous or have asthma symptoms.

The kind of mold found in homes that can bring about asthma is called stachybotrys -- a black, sticky, slimy fungus. To grow indoors, it needs water, so it's often found around water pipes or in areas moistened by a leaky roof, wall or plumbing.

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