Walk into an autobody shop and you may be greeted by a curious cocktail of chemical fumes. Posted signs keep customers out of work areas, but painters and repairers must stay in that environment for hours each day. Although most shops take safety precautions, research shows that exposure to chemicals in autobody paint can trigger respiratory ailments.

To determine how exposure to a class of chemicals known as isocyanates causes asthma, researchers at Yale's Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program have launched a study of shops in two Connecticut counties. The study, called the Survey of Painters and Repairers in Autobodies by Yale, or SPRAY, is also directed at finding better ways of protecting workers' health.

Workers in autobody shops are exposed to many potentially harmful materials, such as paints and solvents. Paints often contain isocyanates, which are highly reactive chemicals known to induce respiratory symptoms and asthma. According to Mark R. Cullen, M.D., director of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program and the study's principal investigator, isocyanates account for the highest number of reported cases of occupational asthma in the United States and other developed countries. Approximately 5 to 10 percent of workers exposed to isocyanates may be affected nationally.

SPRAY, which is funded by a five-year, $2 million grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, provides participating autobody shops with free industrial hygiene evaluations. Yale researchers evaluate the working environments in several shops for isocyanate exposure, make recommendations to reduce their exposure to chemicals, and give workers free respiratory health evaluations.