The bakers' last gasp

November 9, 2001

Baking was all Barry Felton ever wanted to do. He got top grades at college and for 12 years ran his own business without problem.

But today, if the 39-year-old Cheshire man comes into contact with flour, he could be gasping for air within hours, writes Steve Farrar.

After his firm folded in 1993, Mr Felton managed an in-store bakery for a high-street supermarket chain. There, Mr Felton developed baker's asthma. It got so serious that he was forced to abandon his chosen trade.

Mr Felton is one of a rising number of cases of baker's asthma that Paul Cullinan and Mark Nieuwenhuijsen have studied at Imperial College, London, in recent years. "The condition doesn't kill you, but it makes your life a misery," Dr Cullinan said. It also destroys many bakers' careers.

Their research, published in the Annals of Occupational Hygiene , shows that one in 100 workers exposed to flour in the United Kingdom was likely to contract the debilitating condition. This is about ten times the government estimate. The scientists believe the risk may be even higher in supermarkets' in-store bakeries.

The problem seems to originate in the flour or in alpha amylase, an additive that is mixed into the dough to help produce fluffier loafs by making the bread rise faster and more evenly.

In superstores, the additive is supplied in a powder form that can be inhaled. A few bakery staff will develop an immune response to the alpha amylase within a year of first being exposed to it. Sufferers become sensitised to flour and its additives and do not necessarily recover once exposure ends.

Dr Nieuwenhuijsen said that up to 100,000 workers in Britain may be exposed to flour dust. Surveillance schemes estimate 88 cases a year. The scientists believe the true total is at least ten times higher.

Last month the Health and Safety Commission announced measures to cut cases of occupational asthma - baker's asthma is the second most common form - by 30 per cent within eight years. The scientists believe action could be taken to significantly reduce cases of baker's asthma, for example, by producing the additive in a non-powder form.

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