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Occupational lung disease
What is occupational lung disease?
A number of lung diseases can result from workplace (occupational) exposure to substances that irritate your lungs. Some workplaces are worse for this than others. Common industries that pose such risks include mining, textiles and plastics, but there are many others. Breathing in some substances can have effects within hours, but sometimes it can take many years for disease to develop.
Signs and symptoms
General symptoms of lung disease include:
- Shortness of breath;
- Chest pain and tightness, and;
- Difficulty breathing.
Below is a list of common occupational lung diseases, which describes specific symptoms and industries relating to each type.
Asbestos was once commonly used for insulation in buildings and houses. Although it is no longer used, it is still present in many older buildings, so it is important to check for it before going through with any renovations that might expose you to it.
Asbestosis is a disease caused by inhaling small asbestos fibres, which build up over time and results in scarring of the lungs. This makes the lungs become stiff and causes difficulty breathing.
Other symptoms of asbestosis include:
- Tightness in the chest;
- Persistent coughing, and;
- Bluish skin from lack of oxygen.
Asbestosis gets worse over time and typically does not occur until decades after exposure. Inhaling asbestos can also result in lung cancer and a thickening, or cancer, of the lining of the lungs. Smoking also increases your risk of developing asbestosis and lung cancer.
Ardystil syndrome is caused by breathing in a substance called Acramin FWN or FWR, which is an aerosol that was used a lot in the textile industry. It tends to result in scarring of the lungs, even with treatment. It eventually leads to respiratory failure and has a poor prognosis.
Industries in which beryllium exposure occurs include:
- Automotive electronics;
- Oil and gas;
- Ceramics, and;
- Nuclear weapons and reactors.
Calcicosis is caused by breathing in limestone dust. It is uncommon and results in nodules forming in the lungs.
Symptoms typically go away within a couple of hours or days after you remove yourself from the source of exposure. If symptoms occur over the long-term, it can be a sign the lungs are scarred.
Industrial jobs that can cause this condition include:
- Poultry handling;
- Grain processing;
- Working in damp or wet conditions, and;
- Plastic or textile work.
Although there are other causes of lung cancer, especially smoking, it can also result from workplace exposure to cancer-causing substances (carcinogens). Occupations that carry a higher risk of lung cancer include:
- Metal and pesticide production, and;
- Industries that expose you to substances that cause other lung diseases and can also cause lung cancer, such as potential exposure to asbestos in construction work.
Silicosis is a disease caused by breathing in dust containing crystalline silica. Particles in the dust enter the alveoli in the lungs, resulting in impaired oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange in the blood. It can also increase your susceptibility to infections such as tuberculosis.
Symptoms of silicosis include:
- Shortness of breath;
- Chest pain;
- Loss of appetite, and;
- Respiratory failure, which can be fatal.
Industrial jobs that can cause silicosis include:
- Blast operations, and;
- Stone, glass, flour or clay manufacturing.
Talcosis occurs when you breathe in talc, more properly known as hydrated magnesium silicate. It can also occur if you inject it into your bloodstream, as some recreational drug users unintentionally do. It causes inflammation that leads to scarring of the lungs.
Construction and painting are industries associated with this condition, along with jobs including the manufacture of:
- Rubber, and;
Methods for diagnosis
A chest X-ray is initially performed to determine how severe the problem is. Additional tests that may be done include a computerised tomography (CT) scan of the lungs, lung function tests, and examining your airways by putting a thin tube with a camera down them (bronchoscopy). A tissue sample (biopsy) of your lung may also be taken to be tested in the lab.
Types of treatment
Occupational lung diseases have no specific treatment. People are encouraged to stop smoking if they do smoke, and to remove the source of exposure to substances causing disease. If there is a continuing risk of exposure, this will inform the decision about whether or not to stay at work. For those who are short of breath, inhalers such as salbutamol can be used. Oxygen therapy may also be used.
Although lung cancer is one of the occupational lung diseases that can result from exposure to cancer-causing substances (carcinogens), it also occurs as a complication of other occupational lung diseases, such as asbestosis.
Prognosis varies according to the type of occupational lung disease you have. In general, there is no cure, and the more scarring to your lungs, the poorer the prognosis.
The only way to completely prevent occupational lung diseases is to avoid the occupations they are common in. However, with proper health and safety regulations in place, there is little need to worry about what are very rare lung diseases. Such safety precautions include:
- Wearing personal protective equipment;
- Substituting hazardous substances for safer alternatives when possible;
- Improving ventilation;
- Educating workers about the risks of lung disease, and;
- Having a trained occupational health expert conduct risk assessments of your work environment.