An occupational lung disease is a lung condition that develops as a result of a person inhaling harmful substances at his or her place of work. Occupational lung diseases are the most common work-related illness in the United States, but fortunately many are preventable or controllable with proper treatment. This page contains links to a number of different resources on occupational lung diseases, including work-related asthma. The web-sites listed are for informational purposes only. They are not intended to replace advice from licensed medical care providers.
Breathing is a necessary body function. However, it can also expose the airways and lungs to dusts, chemicals, vapors, smoke, gases, fumes, and mists. Inhaling certain substances can damage lungs and promote certain conditions, including asthma, asbestosis, lung cancer, emphysema, and others. All of these diseases are due to harmful particles, vapors, gases, or mists that cause damage to the lungs when inhaled during working hours for a long period of time. The American Lung Association divides occupational lung diseases into two major groups: pneumoconioses, caused by dust that gets into the lungs, and hypersensitivity diseases, such as asthma, that are caused by the lungs' overreaction to airborne pollutants. Additionally, some cases of lung cancer and bronchitis are classified as occupational lung diseases, as is the malady called byssinosis.
Occupational lung diseases are caused by harmful particles, mists, vapors or gases inhaled while a person works. 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. The body has several ways of getting rid of inhaled particles. In the airways, mucus coats particles so they can be coughed up more easily. In the lungs, special scavenger cells engulf most particles and render them harmless. Sometimes, the body's defenses cannot fight off harmful inhaled particles, and disease develops.
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.
Bronchoconstriction may result from an antigen-antibody reaction, eg, in some forms of occupational asthma; from pharmacologic mechanisms (in byssinosis), in which the deposition of particles causes the mast cells of the airways to produce bronchoconstrictors, such as histamine and slow-reacting substance of anaphylaxis (leukotrienes C4, D4, and E4); or from irritation as a reflex mechanism (eg, in response to sulfites). Bronchitis or mucous gland hypertrophy may be induced by long-continued deposition of particles, which may lead to a minor chronic airflow obstruction. Lung cancer may result from deposition of asbestos fibers or dusts with adsorbed radon daughters. Deposition of particles in the nose may lead to rhinitis, hay fever (which may be regarded as occupationally related in an agricultural worker), septal perforation in chrome workers, and nasal cancer in furniture workers.