What are occupational lung diseases?

Repeated and long-term exposure to certain irritants on the job can lead to an array of lung diseases that may have lasting effects, even after exposure ceases. Certain occupations, because of the nature of their location, work, and environment, are more at risk for occupational lung diseases than others. Contrary to a popular misconception, coal miners are not the only ones at risk for occupational lung diseases. For instance, working in a car garage or textile factory can expose a person to hazardous chemicals, dusts, and fibers that may lead to a lifetime of lung problems if not properly diagnosed and treated.

Consider these statistics from the American Lung Association:

  • In the U.S., occupational lung diseases are the number one cause of work-related illness in terms of frequency, severity, and preventability.

  • Most occupational lung diseases are caused by repeated, long-term exposure, but even a severe, single exposure to a hazardous agent can damage the lungs.

  • Occupational lung diseases are preventable.

  • Smoking can increase both the severity of an occupational lung disease and the risk of lung cancer.

What are the symptoms of an occupational lung disease?

The following are the most common symptoms of lung diseases, regardless of the cause. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Coughing

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest pain

  • Chest tightness

  • Abnormal breathing pattern

The symptoms of occupational lung diseases may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How are occupational lung diseases diagnosed?

Occupational lung diseases, like other lung diseases, usually require an initial chest X-ray for preliminary diagnosis. In addition, various tests may be performed to determine the type and severity of the lung disease, including:

  • Pulmonary function tests--diagnostic tests that help to measure the lungs' ability to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide appropriately. The tests are usually performed with special machines into which the person must breathe.

  • Microscopic examination of tissue, cells, and fluids from the lungs

  • Biochemical and cellular studies of lung fluids

  • Measurement of respiratory or gas exchange functions

  • Examination of airway or bronchial activity

What is the difference between inorganic and organic dust?

Particles in the air may cause lung problems. Often called particulate matter (PM), particles can consist of a combination of dust, pollens, molds, dirt, soil, ashes, and soot. Particulate matter in the air comes from many sources, such as factories, smokestacks, exhaust, fires, mining, construction, and agriculture. The finer the particles are, the more damage they can do to the lungs, because they are easily inhaled deep into the lungs, where they are absorbed into the body.

"Inorganic" refers to any substances that do not contain carbon, excluding certain simple carbon oxides, such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. "Organic" refers to any substances that do contain carbon, excluding simple carbon oxides, sulfides, and metal carbonates.

Examples of inorganic dust diseases

  • Asbestosis

    Asbestosis is caused by the inhalation of microscopic fibers of asbestos. The disease is progressive, resulting in scarring of the lungs with fibrous tissue, according to the American Lung Association. An estimated 1.3 million construction and industry workers are exposed to asbestos on the job.

    Asbestos is a mineral fiber that was added in the past to certain products for strengthening, heat insulation, and fire resistance. Most products today are not made with asbestos. Normally safe when combined with other materials, asbestos is hazardous to the lungs when the fibers become airborne (such as when a product deteriorates and crumbles).

    The risk of asbestos exposure is not just limited to the workplace. Since many homes were built with asbestos products (especially those homes built before the 1970s). Examples of products that may have previously contained asbestos include:

    • Insulation blankets or tape around steam pipes, boilers, and furnace ducts

    • Resilient floor tiles

    • Vinyl sheet flooring backing

    • Adhesives used to install floor tiles

    • Insulation made of cement sheet, millboard, and paper used around furnaces and wood-burning stoves

    • Door gaskets in furnaces, wood stoves, and coal stoves

    • Sprayed soundproofing or decorative material on walls and ceilings

    • Patching and joint compounds for walls and ceilings

    • Cement roofing, shingles, and siding

    If the asbestos-containing materials are in good condition, they are generally safe if left alone. If you have questions concerning asbestos in your home, office, or work environment, you may want to consider having the materials in question inspected. Removal of asbestos-containing material should be undertaken by a specially-trained contractor. Mesothelioma, an otherwise rare cancer of the chest lining, is also caused by asbestos exposure. The American Lung Association estimates that 2,000 to 3,000 individuals are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year in the U.S.

  • Coal worker's pneumoconiosis

    Coal worker's pneumoconiosis is caused by inhaling coal dust. Also known as black lung disease, the condition, in severe cases, is characterized by scarring on the lungs (which often permanently damages the lungs and may lead to shortness of breath). About 2.8 percent of coal miners have coal worker's pneumoconiosis.

  • Silicosis

    Silicosis is a lung disease caused by inhaling free crystalline silica, a dust found in the air of mines, foundries, blasting operations, and stone, clay, and glass manufacturing facilities. Characterized by scarring of the lungs, silicosis itself can increase the risk for other lung diseases, including tuberculosis (a chronic, bacterial infection that usually infects the lungs). To date, an estimated 2 million workers are believed to have been exposed to free crystalline silica dust.

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