Scientists at Memorial University have developed a system to accurately detect the airborne particles that cause fish plant workers to develop shellfish allergies.
Reactions vary widely from person to person, but past studies have shown that people who work in this province’s shellfish processing plants have a higher-than-normal chance of developing a sensitivity to the animals.
But despite the prevalence of the problem, there has never been an accurate way of measuring these airborne allergens — until now.
The method was developed by Anas Abdel Rahman, a former doctoral chemistry student at MUN, and his supervisor, MUN chemistry professor Bob Helleur, while working in conjunction with a handful of other colleagues.
Rahman and Helleur started working on the project in 2008, picking up on research conducted by Barbara Neis, co-director of the SafetyNet Centre for Occupational Health and Safety at MUN. Neis was part of a group that did some of the first research on shellfish processing plants in Newfoundland and Labrador and their connection to allergies.
Neis, a sociologist by training, was researching processing plant health and safety in the early 1990s when she had a fateful conversation with a fish plant worker.
That worker told Neis “that there was a serious problem in one of the plants that she was working in, that people were having trouble breathing. ... She really didn’t know what was going on.”
Fast-forward more than a decade to 2008 and Neis and her group had done a couple of studies that linked fish plants to shellfish allergies, but the problem remained.
“From a practical point of view what the government wanted and what the industry wanted, and needed, was a defensible, simple and cheap way to basically monitor allergen levels,” said Neis.
During her research in the early 2000s Neis employed a method developed in Quebec in conjunction with an American scientist.
That system involved installing air filters in fish plants and testing the results against blood samples from every employee in the plant.
“It was very expensive and I was never all that happy with the quality of the result. All kinds of things could go wrong — we had to ship them to the United States,” said Neis.
Enter Rahman and Helleur.
Together they set out to develop a better way to detect the amount of allergens in the air.
It was a tough go from the start, said Rahman.
Specific proteins in shellfish like crab and lobster are known allergens, so Rahman started his research there.
“I couldn’t find any literature talking about any special technique to measure aerosolized proteins,” he said.
But that initial difficulty just made the eventual success all the sweeter.
“We ended up having a very rigid, valid method to quantify these allergens and to screen the air of workplace environments,” he said.
“We are able now to map the environment inside the plant itself. So we can figure out where is the highest level of allergens, the lowest level, the acceptable level,” he said.
The process they developed built on the previous one from Quebec, said Helleur.
The team tested various proteins found in the air in the plants and identified which ones were allergenic.
“When you sample air in a crab plant you get quite a few proteins, but only one or two are responsible for the asthma or the allergen. So when you do total proteins it’s like a needle in a haystack where you don’t know exactly how much (allergenic) protein there is. We mined it and found out which ones were responsible and we also developed a way to measure them,” he said.
The team used a mass spectrometer (a device that can measure the mass and concentration of atoms) to examine markers in the proteins and count how much allergic material is in a sample.
The more material in a sample, the higher that area’s risk of causing someone to develop allergies.
The method requires no blood sample, is relatively easy to accomplish and is accurate. The only problem with the test is the need to use a mass spectrometer, a piece of equipment that can cost upwards of $500,000.
But overall, mission accomplished.
Since the research was finished about a year ago the method has been adopted for use in Quebec, which has strict guidelines for allergenics in the workplace, and interest has been shown by processors as far away as Australia.
Unfortunately, there is no sign of the method being used in Newfoundland anytime soon, said Neis.
“In Quebec they pretty systematically monitor their plants. Here the government might go in and do an inspection if there is a complaint. There is no standard or protocol for going in and measuring exposures. And secondly, until now even if the government got a complaint they had no way to accurately measure exposures,” said Neis.