Isocyanates (di- and poly-), important chemicals used worldwide to produce polyurethane products, are a leading cause of occupational asthma. Respiratory exposures have been reduced through improved hygiene controls and the use of less-volatile isocyanates. Yet isocyanate asthma continues to occur, not uncommonly in settings with minimal inhalation exposure but opportunity for skin exposure. In this review we evaluate the potential role of skin exposure in the development of isocyanate asthma.
We reviewed the published animal and human literature on isocyanate skin-exposure methods, workplace skin exposure, skin absorption, and the role of skin exposure in isocyanate sensitization and asthma.
We selected relevant articles from computerized searches on Medline, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Google databases using the keywords “isocyanate,” “asthma,” “skin,” “sensitization,” and other synonymous terms, and our own extensive collection of isocyanate publications.
Isocyanate production and use continues to increase as the polyurethane industry expands. There is substantial opportunity for isocyanate skin exposure in many work settings, but such exposure is challenging to quantify and continues to be underappreciated. Isocyanate skin exposure can occur at work, even with the use of personal protective equipment, and may also occur with consumer use of certain isocyanate products. In animals, isocyanate skin exposure is an efficient route to induce sensitization, with subsequent inhalation challenge resulting in asthma-like responses. Several lines of evidence support a similar role for human isocyanate skin exposure, namely, that such exposure occurs and can contribute to the development of isocyanate asthma in certain settings, presumably by inducing systemic sensitization.
Integrated animal and human research is needed to better understand the role of skin exposure in human isocyanate asthma and to improve diagnosis and prevention. In spite of substantial research needs, sufficient evidence already exists to justify greater emphasis on the potential risks of isocyanate skin exposure and the importance of preventing such exposures at work and during consumer use of certain isocyanate products.
Keywords: asthma, dermal exposure, isocyanates, sensitization, skin