Dr. MJ Bazos MD,
Who is at risk for work-related lung
If the air you breathe at work contains an
excessive amount of dust, fumes, smoke, gases, vapors or mists, you may be at
risk for a lung disease. Workers who smoke are at a much greater risk of lung
disease if they are exposed to substances in the workplace that cause lung
disease. Poor ventilation, closed-in working areas and heat increase the risk.
Outside air pollution can also increase the risk of lung disease in people who
work in jobs that expose them to substances that can cause lung disease.
What substances in the workplace can
hurt my lungs?
Many substances found in the workplace can cause
breathing problems. Some of them are as follows:
- Dusts from such things as wood, cotton,
coal, asbestos, silica and talc. Dust from cereal grains, coffee, pesticides,
drug or enzyme powders, metals and fiberglass can also hurt your lungs.
- Fumes such as from metals that are heated
and cooled quickly. This process results in fine, solid particles being carried
in the air. Examples of jobs that involve exposure to fumes from metals and
other substances that are heated and cooled quickly include welding, smelting,
furnace work, pottery making, plastics manufacture and rubber operations.
- Smoke from burning organic materials.
Smoke can contain a variety of dusts, gases and vapors, depending on what is
burning. Firefighters are at special risk.
- Gases such as formaldehyde, ammonia,
chlorine, sulfur dioxide, ozone and nitrogen oxides. These gases can be found in
jobs where chemical reactions occur and in jobs with high heat operations, such
as welding, brazing, smelting, oven drying and furnace work.
- Vapors, which are a form of gas given off
by all liquids. Vapors, such as those given off by solvents, usually irritate
the nose and throat first, before they affect the lungs.
- Mists or sprays from paints, lacquers (for
example, varnishes), hair spray, pesticides, cleaning products, acids, oils and
solvents (such as turpentine).
What kinds of
breathing problems can occur following exposure to such substances?
Some substances can cause you to have upper
respiratory irritation or irritation of your nose and/or throat and cold-like
symptoms, such as a runny nose and scratchy throat.
Viral infections and allergies produce similar
symptoms. You should become suspicious of a work-related illness if you often
feel like your nose and throat are irritated and breathing problems seem to
occur when you are at work.
Breathing in substances at work can also cause
you to have bronchitis, a flu-like illness, asthma and emphysema. A person with
bronchitis has a persistent cough that produces mucus or sputum and lasts at
least 3 months a year. Cigarette smoking is the most common cause of bronchitis,
but workplace toxins can also play a role.
Frequent episodes of flu-like illness may be
caused by substances you breathe in your workplace. If you notice that you often
have what seems to be the flu, your illness may be caused by something you are
exposed to at work.
There are different work-related lung diseases
that can make you feel as though you have the flu. One of them is allergic
alveolitis (also known as "farmer's lung"), which can occur after excessive
exposure to moldy hay. Metal fume fever is another occupational lung disease
that can produce flu-like symptoms. It occurs from inhalation of metal vapors
such as in welding and other metallic operations. Polymer fume fever, from
breathing the fumes of polymers such as Teflon, also may make you feel like you
have the flu. A worker with one of these conditions develops breathing problems,
cough, fever, muscle aches and general malaise (a feeling of being tired and
having no energy) 4 to 6 hours after exposure to the substance. If such symptoms
occur again and again when you are at work, this pattern is a clue that your
illness may be related to your work.
If you develop asthma for the first time as an
adult, the illness could be related to something you are exposed to at work.
Asthma symptoms include wheezing, a persistent dry cough or trouble breathing.
Emphysema usually occurs in older people who
smoke. However, people who have worked with coal, asbestos or silica dust for 20
years or more can develop emphysema. They may have a cough, fatigue, chest
tightness and difficulty breathing.
What should I do if I think
something in the air at work is making me sick?
You will want to see your family doctor. Before
doing so you need to gather some information to help your doctor make a
diagnosis. One way you can do this is to keep a written record about your
illness. Try to write down the following information:
- When you first started to have your symptoms
- How often you have symptoms
- The time of day that the symptoms are worse
- Whether you feel better on some days
- How you feel your symptoms relate to work
Even if the pattern of your
symptoms does not seem to be clearly related to your work, it is important to
record the timing of your symptoms accurately.
Also make a note of your shift or work hours and
the days of the week you work and are off work. Try to recall previous jobs,
hobbies and smoking habits--anything that might have affected your lungs. If
your doctor has sent you an occupational health history form, fill it out as
completely as possible.
Write down the list of all of the ingredients
listed on the containers of materials you are using in the workplace. Also write
down any descriptions of handling precautions and first-aid measures that are
printed on the label. If possible, try to get the chemical name instead of the
brand name, to show your doctor.
Ask to see the material safety data sheets
(MSDSs) at your workplace. These are information sheets about the products that
you use in the workplace. All employers are required by law to complete these
forms, and you have a right to see them. Obtain copies of the MSDSs and bring
them with you to your doctor's appointment.
How can I keep from having my lungs
damaged by something I'm exposed to at work?
If you smoke, stop. This is the most important
thing you can do for your overall health, regardless of your workplace risks.
Cigarette smoking irritates the lungs and impairs their self-cleaning ability,
so smokers are at greater risk of developing some work-related lung diseases
than are nonsmokers. For example, asbestos workers who smoke more than a pack of
cigarettes a day greatly increase their risk of lung cancer. Such workers have
up to 90 times the chance of dying of lung cancer compared with workers who
neither smoke nor work with asbestos.
If you are exposed to a substance at work that
can cause lung disease, use a respirator as a temporary measure until changes
are made in the workplace that prevent exposure to the substance. You must be
properly fitted and trained in the use of the respirator. Over time you should
be periodically refitted and retrained in how to use this equipment. The
respirator must be carefully cleaned after each use and it should be checked and
maintained to ensure that it works properly.
If you are exposed to damaging substances at
work, talk to your supervisor about the need for adequate ventilation and new
procedures to eliminate your exposure. A change in ingredients, work practices
or machinery can reduce hazards in the air. Ventilation systems can remove
pollutants and toxins from the air to reduce exposure and prevent buildup. Local
exhaust ventilation can be used to remove polluted air at the point where it is
generated by a hazardous process or machine. At some jobs people can be
separated from the hazards.