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Increased Allergen Levels in Homes Linked to Asthma

By Robin Arnette
March 2008

Lead Author and Postdoctoral Fellow Päivi Salo of the Environmental Cardiopulmonary Disease Group
Lead Author and Postdoctoral Fellow Päivi Salo of the Environmental Cardiopulmonary Disease Group (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Zeldin is the NIEHS acting clinical director, a senior investigator and head of the Environmental Cardiopulmonary Disease Group at NIEHS.
Zeldin is the NIEHS acting clinical director, a senior investigator and head of the Environmental Cardiopulmonary Disease Group at NIEHS. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Sam Arbes, Ph.D., who is now a researcher with the Rho Inc., was formerly a staff scientist in the Environmental Cardiopulmonary Disease Group.
Sam Arbes, Ph.D., who is now a researcher with Rho Inc., was formerly a staff scientist in the Environmental Cardiopulmonary Disease Group. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Not all asthma sufferers have respiratory allergies, but the ones who do must be wary of certain "triggers" that initiate asthma attacks. The results of new research may help the millions of Americans who fall into this category.

The findings of a national survey suggest that asthmatics with allergies may alleviate symptoms by reducing allergen exposures inside their homes. The work was carried out by investigators at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the University of Iowa, Rho Inc. and the Constella Group.

"Indoor allergen exposures are of great importance in relation to asthma because most people spend a majority of their time indoors, especially at home," said Darryl Zeldin, M.D., (/research/atniehs/labs/lrb/enviro-cardio/index.cfm) a senior investigator in the Laboratory of Respiratory Biology at the NIEHS and senior author on the paper. 

The outcome of the investigation, published online (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18255132?ordinalpos=2&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum) Exit NIEHS Website and available in the March issue of the Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology, reveals that exposure to multiple indoor allergens was common in U.S. households, with 52 percent having at least six detectable allergens and 46 percent having three or more allergens at increased levels. The indoor allergens studied included those from dog, cat, mouse, cockroach, dust mite, and the fungus Alternaria.

The researchers used data from the National Survey of Lead and Allergens in Housing (NSLAH) to examine factors that contribute to high allergen levels in homes and to determine whether elevated household allergen levels were associated with occupants' asthma status. The NSLAH, which was the first study to characterize how allergen exposures vary in homes at the national level, surveyed the homes of nearly 2500 individuals in 75 locations throughout the U.S. The survey was jointly funded by the NIEHS and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

The researchers reported that several factors contributed to the increased concentrations of allergens. Types and levels of allergens were influenced by sociodemographic factors, including race, income and type of home, as well as by apparent sources of allergens, such as presence of pets and pests. The study also showed that homes with children were less likely to have high allergen levels. The authors noted that this finding may not be surprising since homes with children may be cleaned more frequently than homes without children. Regular household cleaning is a simple, yet effective, regimen that helps to reduce the overall exposure burden.

According lead researcher and NIEHS Postdoctoral Fellow Päivi Salo, Ph.D., the study provides useful information to asthma patients. "Our results highlight the importance of exposure reduction as a fundamental part of asthma management," she said. "Although homes cannot be made allergen free, asthmatics that have allergies may need to do better job in reducing allergen levels in their homes in order to improve asthma control."

While several studies have demonstrated that exposure to allergens aggravates asthma symptoms, this investigation is the first to provide information on total allergen burden in U.S. homes and how it relates to asthma. "This study confirms that indoor allergens play a major role in asthma," Zeldin stated.

Salo and her co-authors, however, point out that more research is needed to understand the complex relationships between genetic and environmental factors that cause asthma. "Although reducing allergen levels in the home may not prevent individuals from developing asthma, reducing exposure levels is crucial for those whose asthma is allergic in nature." Zeldin concluded.



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