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Skin Sense: Work environment raises likelihood of diseases

Published on Friday, 15 Jan 2010
People working in the manufacturing and production industries are more vulnerable to skin disease than office workers, as they are more likely to come into contact with industrial chemicals or other hazardous substances.

The working environment gives rise to a slew of specific skin diseases such as folliculitis, hand dermatitis and skin cancer.

Folliculitis is an inflammation of the hair follicles, a condition common for people in the metal industry who are exposed to mineral and soluble oils. The common symptom of folliculitis is a rash consisting of papules, comedones and pustules, mainly affecting the forearms and thighs of workers who come into contact with oil and grease. Comedones will occur particularly on the cheeks, forehead, neck and behind the ears of those who work in the electrical industry who handle chlorinated naphthalenes and chlorinated biphenyls on a regular basis. In Chinese medicine, folliculitis is believed to be caused by excess heat leading to an imbalance between yin and yang, which causes inflammation.

The symptoms of folliculitis can be treated with:

Ingredients 10g Chinese yam and 20 castor beans
Preparation Rinse the ingredients, soak them in 750ml of water for 10 minutes and boil for 30 minutes. Grind the ingredients and apply the mixture on the affected area.

Hand dermatitis is common among workers in the manufacturing industry. Symptoms include severe redness, swelling, weeping and scaling of the skin on the affected area exposed to irritants such as acrylate glues - superglue - epoxies, textile dyes and resins. If proper treatment is not found, hand dermatitis can spread to other areas of the skin which remain exposed to the irritant to which one is allergic.

The condition starts insidiously. At the beginning, chapping and dryness of the skin are followed by redness, scaling and fissuring. Such features can be seen in apprentice hairdressers who come into contact with large amounts of shampoo without wearing gloves. Hand dermatitis is also commonly found in people working in an industry who are subject to coolant oils. The symptoms can be treated with:

Ingredients 10g gromwell root, 10g angelica sinensis, one teaspoon of sesame oil, and 30g vaseline.
Preparation Grind the gromwell root and angelica sinensis into powder and mix with sesame oil and vaseline. The paste can be applied to the affected area three times daily.

The most malicious kind of skin disease that can develop due to contact with industrial chemicals and irritants on a regular basis is skin cancer. People working in the rubber manufacturing industry face an increased risk of developing skin cancer due to extended exposure to pitches and tars - polyaromatic hydrocarbons. The risk may increase according to the duration and level of exposure to the chemicals.

There are two main types of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma and cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma. The former begins as a small, smooth surface, well defined pink nodule and may have varying degrees of melanin pigment. As the nodule enlarges, central ulceration occurs; the latter occurs most commonly in areas chronically exposed to sunlight such as the scalp, neck, upper extremities, back of hands, and the outer part of the ear. The tumours present themselves as small, firm nodules with indistinct margins or as plaques.

Surgery is the normal method of treatment for patients with skin cancer. Cancer patients can take Chinese medicine to restore their energy after surgery. Herbs such as herba hedyotis diffusae, herba scutellariae barbatae and dandelion are commonly used in Chinese medicine to treat cancer. However, it is important to seek professional advice from a registered Chinese medicine practitioner when considering using Chinese herbs.

For people working in the manufacturing industry who need to use chemicals or other hazardous substances, it is important that information and instructions of use on the material safety data sheets of chemicals be strictly observed. The data sheets will list any known risk of skin irritation, skin allergy or skin cancer. Protective gear, such as gloves, aprons and other equipment, needs to be worn to reduce the level of exposure of your skin to oils, greases and chemicals.

Wear clean clothes to work, and take off oil-soaked or chemical-soaked work clothes immediately after work. It is also not advisable to clean hands or other skin areas with gasoline, kerosene, mineral spirits or turpentine.

Jenny Yeung Ming-ha is a registered Chinese medicine practitioner and deputy managing director of Jane Clare Professional Skin Centre

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