Isocyanates, polyurethane and childhood asthma


Cheryl A. Krone, PhD, Applied Research Institute, P.O. Box 1969, Palmerston North, New Zealand
Tel.: +64-6-353-1010
Fax: +64-6-353-1012


Isocyanates are the most prominent and well-studied cause of occupational asthma. Over the decades, airborne isocyanates have been regulated to extremely low levels in the workplace, some of the lowest for any organic compound. Yet the incidence of isocyanate-induced occupational asthma remains high and the role of dermal exposure in disease etiology is only slowly being recognized. Almost completely overlooked is the potential relationship between isocyanates in consumer products and increasing prevalence of asthma in the general population, especially children. The steady rise in asthma over the past decades points strongly to a potential role of environmental exposures in its development. Imbalances in the immune system favoring respiratory diseases have been linked to biological and chemical stressor exposures early in life. Evidence for the presence of isocyanates in many polyurethane-containing materials, especially polyurethane foams, is presented as a possible contributor to the increase in asthma. Polyurethane foam is ubiquitous in western societies and used in bedding, furniture, automobile seats, footwear, etc., and numerous medical materials. Theoretical, epidemiologic, experimental and clinical evidence of a role for isocyanates and polyurethanes in the genesis of non-occupational allergy and respiratory disease are reviewed. These data all point to the urgent need for additional research on the links between isocyanates, polyurethanes and the role of the skin in non-occupational asthma.