Nurses are developing chronic asthma, eczema and dermatitis through exposure to glutaraldehyde, which is being more widely used because of the fear of Aids and HIV infection.
Radiographers are also developing serious health problems because the chemical is used in developing X-ray film. Once someone is 'sensitised' to it, through skin contact or vapour inhalation, they usually cannot work with it again. Some staff have lost their jobs as a result.
The powerful disinfectant is particularly used for sterilising the flexible 'telescopes' used in day surgery, which are unsuitable for sterilisation by traditional heat treatment. With the rapid expansion of day cases, its use has rocketed in recent years.
'Day surgery brings tremendous benefits to patients and savings to the NHS, but it must not be developed at the expense of nurses' health,' said Christine Hancock, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing.
'The NHS has a duty to provide a safe working environment and must not scrimp on the cost of doing so.'
The Health and Safety Executive, which issued a warning about the chemical in April, is conducting a pilot study among nurses in Bristol to discover more about the risks involved, with a view to tightening the regulations further. A study by the Society of Radiographers has already discovered that almost 1,000 of its members are suffering symptoms from fumes. Both the RCN and the other nursing union, Cohse, are fighting cases for members, claiming inadequate protection.
One victim is Kathleen Garland, 47, who is a nurse from Frimley, Surrey. 'I went to work one day a well woman and ended the day as a respiratory cripple,' she said. 'That was in October last year. I have never been so ill. My lung capacity is still down 25 per cent and there are many things I cannot do.'Reuse content