Workplace exposure a significant cause of severe respiratory disease

Workplace exposure to dust or fumes may account for as many as five million cases of emphysema, chronic bronchitis and related diseases in the U.S. diseases that have been mainly attributed to smoking, a new University of California, San Francisco survey shows.

While smoking still accounts for most of the 16 million cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, the finding that occupational exposure may contribute to the illness in three to five million people strongly suggests a need for better workplace prevention, the researchers say. Their study is based on interviews of more than 2,000 people.

COPD involves chronic lung inflammation, a narrowing of the airways and increasingly severe breathing difficulties. It is the fourth highest cause of death in the U.S., killing more than 100,000 people a year. Worldwide, COPD kills three million people every year and is expected to become the third most common cause of death within 15 years. Annual direct and indirect costs of the disease in the U.S. have been estimated at more than $30 billion, according to NIH statistics.

"Although smoking prevention remains paramount, controlling hazardous exposures can also have an important role in reducing COPD," said Paul Blanc, MD, senior author of the study and UCSF professor of occupational and environmental medicine, and of pulmonary and critical care.

The research team's findings are being published in the September issue of the European Respiratory Journal.

The study found that chronic bronchitis, emphysema and related diseases are twice as frequent in people who have been exposed to toxic airborne substances in the workplace, regardless of whether or not they smoke. Workplace exposure has long been suspected in the disease, but no definitive studies have been carried out to quantify the proportion of cases contributed by the workplace.

Researchers interviewed more than 2,000 people in the U.S., aged 55 to 75, by

Contact: Wallace Ravven
University of California - San Francisco

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