Lab animal allergens can be a serious health concern for those who work with animals at the UW; it’s important to understand the health risks and how to protect yourself. EH&S has resources that can help.
Animal research is a vital and impactful part of UW’s scientific contributions. With over 450 active research protocols, these can include everything from tracking predators in the North Cascades, to understanding cancer in mice. A large proportion also involves work with laboratory animals. More than 3,000 people work in the animal care and use environment to support the University’s lab animal research. This work can pose a health risk to UW employees and students by exposing them to lab animal allergens (LAA).
What are lab animal allergens?
LAA are proteins found in the dander, hair/fur, scales, saliva, urine, and other and body wastes of lab animals. When a worker comes into contact with these proteins, there is a chance they may develop an allergy or asthma. Allergies can take weeks, months, or years to develop. An allergic reaction is an exaggerated response by the immune system to an allergen. LAA symptoms can include but are not limited to nasal congestion, sneezing, irritated eyes, and rashes. More serious cases can lead to asthma (shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing). Some employees may eventually have to leave their work with animals if their symptoms are severe.
How can I be exposed to LAA?
You can be exposed to allergens if you inhale them, if they contact your skin or eyes, or if they enter your body through breaks in the skin from bites or needlesticks. Tasks that may generate airborne exposures to allergens include cage changing, cage dumping and washing, and performing procedures on animals or animal tissue. You don’t have to work directly with animals to be exposed! If allergens are released into the air, anyone in the room can be exposed.
What is the risk of having an allergic reaction?
It’s estimated that 11 to 44 percent of animal workers will develop allergic symptoms. Of those with symptoms, up to one in 10 will develop asthma, which may not go away even if exposure stops. People who have existing allergies (e.g., to cats or dogs) are more likely to develop lab animal allergies.
What can I do to protect myself from LAA?
- Be aware: Understand sources of allergens, know your individual risk, and ways you can protect yourself.
- Complete an Animal Use Medical Screening: EH&S has a screening process to identify individuals who might have greater risk. Screening is required if you work with research animals. You can find more information on the EH&S Animal Use Medical Screening (AUMS) page.
- Use available controls: This includes engineering controls (cage changing stations, cages with filter tops, and biosafety cabinets), work practices (washing hands, leaving work clothes at work, wet-wiping surfaces), and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE: gloves, hair bonnets, N95 respirators).
Where can I find more information?
- EH&S Animal Use Medical Screening (AUMS) page
- Lab Animal Allergens Pamphlet
- NIOSH Preventing Asthma in Animal Handlers
- Bush RJ, Stave GM. Laboratory animal allergy: an update. ILAR J. 2003; 44(1): 28-51.
For additional assistance, contact the Employee Health Center at 206-685-1026 or firstname.lastname@example.org.