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On-the-job exposure to dust or toxic fumes may cause as many as 5 million cases of a group of deadly lung diseases called COPD, a study reports today.
Smoking still causes most cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an umbrella term for diseases that injure the lung and cause severe breathing difficulties. The American Lung Association says 80% to 90% of cases are pegged to smoking, and occupational exposure is blamed for about 20% of the cases.
But this study suggests that workplace exposure to pollutants may be a more important cause of the disease than previously suspected. The new study found that workplace exposure may cause as much as 31% of all cases of COPD, which kills more than 100,000 Americans each year.
Research had suggested a link between the disease and on-the-job exposure to dust, debris, fumes or other pollutants. Laura Trupin, an epidemiologist at the University of California-San Francisco, wanted to determine the scope of the problem.
Trupin and her colleagues interviewed more than 2,000 people in the USA by telephone. The researchers asked the respondents about their respiratory health and whether they were exposed to dust, fumes or pollutants while they worked. The team found that people who were exposed to such pollution were twice as likely to have COPD -- regardless of whether they smoked.
The team didn't determine the risk for individual occupations, but Trupin says firefighters, miners, farmers and bakers often inhale microscopic bits of dust and debris that can injure the lungs and lead to the disease.
The study, published in the European Respiratory Journal, also suggests that smokers who inhale a lot of fumes or dust on the job face an even greater risk of developing the disease.
Doctors use the term COPD to describe lung damage caused mainly by emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Emphysema hurts the lung's air sacs, while bronchitis injures the airway tubes.
Both diseases make it hard for the lungs to take in enough oxygen.
There is no cure for COPD, which progressively gets worse and makes it more difficult to breathe or perform even routine activities. The study found that fewer than 20% of the people interviewed who had the disease still held a job.
The disease costs the U.S. economy an estimated $32 billion a year, says Norman Edelman of the American Lung Association.
The report suggests that policymakers should pay more attention to strategies to protect workers from lung-damaging pollutants.
''Workers have a right to demand a safe workplace -- and that includes clean air,'' Edelman says.
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