Latino Workers at Risk of Intoxication

Dominican-born Clara Santana, who has spent 20 years cleaning offices, said that the products she uses to do her job have affected her health. (Photo by Pedro F. Frisneda via El Diario)

Clara Santana has worked for the same office cleaning and maintenance company in New York City for more than 20 years. The Dominican-born worker spends eight hours every day cleaning desks, cubicles and glass walls on two floors of a downtown Brooklyn skyscraper. She said that the products and detergents she uses every day have led her to develop serious health issues.

“A few years ago, my lungs began to suffer and I became allergic to paint and asthmatic. The odor affects me a lot,” complained the Bronx resident.

“The metal paint they use on door frames, elevators and revolving doors has a very strong smell and, if you breathe it, it congests your bronchi, which is why I have been in the hospital several times,” added Santana with a concerned expression on her face.

The 57-year-old is one of thousands of maintenance, repair, cleaning and construction laborers and workers of Hispanic origin whose health has been impacted by the toil they perform daily to support their families.

A new study published this week revealed that these workers face additional, even more dangerous health risks.

According to the study, published in the November issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Hispanics who are exposed to organic solvents – such as construction and maintenance staff – are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, a dangerous condition that can cause heart disease.

“We investigated every symptom in the ‘metabolic syndrome,’ including high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol [and] diabetes, but only saw signs of hypertension,” Dr. María Argos, of the University of Illinois at Chicago and lead writer of the report, told El Diario.

“In this study, we found that between 28 and 32 percent of all current workers have high blood pressure, and the risk rate varies among different Latino groups. For instance, it is very high among the Cuban population compared to the South American population, where it is very low,” said the expert.

In order to carry out their research, Dr. Argos and her team studied more than 7,000 adult Latino employees in four U.S. cities who have been exposed to solvents, metals and pesticides.

“Based on the data we collected for this study, we know that there are people who are constantly exposed at their current job. However, we do not know to which types of solvents or at what level they have been exposed. We do not know if they wear masks or gloves to protect themselves, either,” explained the researcher, who said that these questions will be the subject of a new investigation.

Argos added that solvents are chemical products with a strong odor whose evaporated fumes may be toxic to workers who inhale them.

“However, the danger is not just in breathing the solvent. If they touch it with their hands or it is splashed on them, it can be absorbed through the skin,” warned the expert.

Although she admitted that they do not yet know exactly the biological mechanism through which exposure to the solvents increases blood pressure, Argos said that it might be caused by inflammation affecting some of the hormones that regulate it.

“For this to happen, the worker must have been exposed to the fumes for a number of years in order [for them] to become a risk factor causing heart disease,” she pointed out.

“High blood pressure is one of the primary risk factors in the development of cardiovascular disease later in life, including heart attacks, and that is why it is a health condition that must be taken very seriously,” warned Argos.

Many Bronx residents affected

Dr. Argos said that her investigation is part of the broadest study conducted so far on the health of Latinos living in the U.S. Entitled “The Hispanic Community Health Study / Study of Latinos,” it evaluated 16,400 Hispanics living in Chicago, Miami, San Diego and New York. Four thousand of them are Bronx residents.

“We are very interested in the health of Hispanics in the U.S. because it is a population that has generally been underestimated, and the few studies that have been carried out have covered Mexican-Americans. For this report, we made an effort to include individuals of other Latino origins such as Puerto Rican, Dominican, Central American and South American,” said Argos.

“We studied a very extended and diverse group representing the current Latino population of the U.S., and we are researching its occupational health because Latinos tend to perform high-risk jobs, probably due to their socioeconomic status or to language barriers,” said Argos, adding that the investigation did not ask about the immigration status of the participants.

One of the study’s main conclusions is that Latinos born outside the U.S., and whose preferred language is Spanish, are more likely to suffer health problems because they take jobs that do not require having command of the English language.

Argos recommended people who are performing jobs in which solvents or other chemicals are used to take precautions such as wearing gloves and masks to cover their face, and to try to have as little contact as possible with these chemicals while using them.

“I have gloves and a mask because this is very dangerous,” said Santana. “Even though I clean offices, my co-workers use detergents to clean the bathroom floors, and they are always complaining that the smell is so strong that it even causes their eyes to become irritated.”

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