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Clinical investigation of an outbreak of alveolitis and asthma in a car engine manufacturing plant
  1. W Robertson1,
  2. A S Robertson2,
  3. C B S G Burge2,
  4. V C Moore2,
  5. M S Jaakkola3,
  6. P A Dawkins4,
  7. M Burd5,
  8. R Rawbone5,
  9. I Gardner5,
  10. M Kinoulty5,
  11. B Crook6,
  12. G S Evans6,
  13. J Harris-Roberts6,
  14. S Rice6,
  15. P S Burge2
  1. 1
    Department of Public Health, Health Sciences Research Institute, Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK
  2. 2
    Occupational Lung Disease Unit, Birmingham Heartlands Hospital, Birmingham, UK
  3. 3
    Institute of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK
  4. 4
    Department of Medicine, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK
  5. 5
    Health and Safety Executive, Birmingham, UK
  6. 6
    Health and Safety Laboratory, Buxton, UK
  1. Wendy Robertson, Lecturer in Public Health, Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK; W.Robertson{at}


Background: Exposure to metal working fluid (MWF) has been associated with outbreaks of extrinsic allergic alveolitis (EAA) in the USA, with bacterial contamination of MWF being a possible cause, but is uncommon in the UK. Twelve workers developed EAA in a car engine manufacturing plant in the UK, presenting clinically between December 2003 and May 2004. This paper reports the subsequent epidemiological investigation of the whole workforce. The study had three aims: (1) to measure the extent of the outbreak by identifying other workers who may have developed EAA or other work-related respiratory diseases; (2) to provide case detection so that those affected could be treated; and (3) to provide epidemiological data to identify the cause of the outbreak.

Methods: The outbreak was investigated in a three-phase cross-sectional survey of the workforce. In phase I a respiratory screening questionnaire was completed by 808/836 workers (96.7%) in May 2004. In phase II 481 employees with at least one respiratory symptom on screening and 50 asymptomatic controls were invited for investigation at the factory in June 2004. This included a questionnaire, spirometry and clinical opinion. 454/481 (94.4%) responded and 48/50 (96%) controls. Workers were identified who needed further investigation and serial measurements of peak expiratory flow (PEF). In phase III 162 employees were seen at the Birmingham Occupational Lung Disease clinic. 198 employees returned PEF records, including 141 of the 162 who attended for clinical investigation. Case definitions for diagnoses were agreed.

Results: 87 workers (10.4% of the workforce) met case definitions for occupational lung disease, comprising EAA (n = 19), occupational asthma (n = 74) and humidifier fever (n = 7). 12 workers had more than one diagnosis. The peak onset of work-related breathlessness was Spring 2003. The proportion of workers affected was higher for those using MWF from a large sump (27.3%) than for those working all over the manufacturing area (7.9%) (OR = 4.39, p<0.001). Two workers had positive specific provocation tests to the used but not the unused MWF solution.

Conclusions: Extensive investigation of the outbreak of EAA detected a large number of affected workers, not only with EAA but also occupational asthma. This is the largest reported outbreak in Europe. Mist from used MWF is the likely cause. In workplaces using MWF there is a need to carry out risk assessments, to monitor and maintain fluid quality, to control mist and to carry out respiratory health surveillance.

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  • Data entry was funded by the company.

  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Abbreviations:
    extrinsic allergic alveolitis
    forced expiratory volume in 1 s
    forced vital capacity
    humidifier fever
    metal working fluid
    occupational asthma
    peak expiratory flow

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