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Early Exposure To Lung Irritants May Cause Later Problems

May 22 2006 - Exposure to lung irritants early in a young employee's career may result in increased lung problems in later years, according to a study presented at the American Thoracic Society International Conference.

The study, led by Cheryl Peters, of the Occupational and Environmental Hygiene Department at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, looked at four groups of apprentices:

  • painters
  • machinists
  • electricians and
  • insulators

These 348 apprentices were all in their early 20s in 1988. The researchers examined medical records of the apprentices' physician visits between 1991 and 2002.

The study found that the apprentices who developed the worst sensitivity to lung irritants in the first two years of their employment showed a higher likelihood of visiting their doctors for both asthma and bronchitis in later years. The Machinists were the most likely to have the worst cases of new sensitivity to lung irritants.

"We know that exposure to irritants in the workplace can change people's lung function later in life, but we can't predict who will go on to develop lung disease," said Cheryl Peters. "We hope this study may begin to answer that question. We are following workers over time and looking at patterns in their healthcare utilization records."

The findings are part of a larger study which is also recording workers' physical measurements, such as lung function, she said. A 15-year followup of the workers is currently underway, in which workers' medical records and lung function will be compared.

Cheryl Peters also noted that painters, especially auto painters, are exposed to chemicals in paint called isosyanates. These are known to cause asthma. Machinists in the study may have been exposed to chemicals or contaminants in metal working fluids that could be a risk factor for developing both asthma and bronchitis, she said.

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