Workplace exposure to harmful substances linked to respiratory conditions

Workplace exposure to harmful substances linked to respiratory conditions

Exposure to gases, fumes, dust, and aromatic solvents used in paints and varnishes in the workplace has been linked to poor lung capacity and respiratory conditions.

Researchers from Monash University have advised that anyone working around harmful gases and solvents should receive regular check-ups to avoid serious respiratory conditions. Evidence from a pooled data analysis has been published online in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine.

High lung capacity is a sign of good respiratory health and can be measured by testing how much air a person can forcibly breathe out in one second. This measurement is known as forced expiratory volume (FEV1).

Weakened lung capacity leads to respiratory conditions

Typically, an individual’s FEV1 gradually declines as a natural consequence of ageing but is also associated with increased vulnerability to harmful respiratory conditions. A fast decline of FEV1 can create a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease and death.

Previous research has suggested that some occupational exposures accelerate the decline of FEV1. However, most of these studies have been short-term and produced inconclusive findings.

The Monash University researchers wanted to better their understanding of the relationship between occupational exposure and respiratory conditions. The researchers pooled all the available data on the associations between workplace exposure and declining lung capacity in long-term population-based studies.

The studies examined by the researchers were based on workplace exposure to a wide range of airborne emissions and particles. Lung capacity was tracked for at least one year and defined by the annual loss of FEV1. Biological dust, fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, aromatic solvents, chlorinated solvents, metals, fibres, and mists were all included as exposures.

The analysis included 12 studies, monitoring periods lasting from four to 25 years. The number of participants ranged from 237 to 17,833. Results showed that any level of exposure to gases/fumes and aromatic solvents was strongly associated with a decline in FEV1. Cumulative workplace exposure for these agents indicated a similar trend.

Any level of exposure to fungicides and cumulative exposures to biological dust, fungicides and insecticides were also linked to a decline in FEV1. However, this was relative to specific variables, such as age, gender, and smoker status. No significant link was observed between exposure to mineral dust, herbicides, and metals and a decline in FEV1.

People exposed to harmful substances at work need regular check-ups

Overall, the methodological quality of the studies was good, but the researchers admit that the total number of studies included in the final analysis was small. The researchers also highlighted other limitations that made it difficult to draw definitive conclusions.

Lung function definitions were not universal across all studies; workplace exposures were measured through various methods. In many of the studies, categories of exposure were vaguely defined, and the researchers were not able to identify the specific variants involved or the duration of the exposure. Despite these limitations, the researchers were still able to make recommendations.

“Periodic workplace health surveillance and lung function testing in exposed occupations will help to identify respiratory disease at an early stage to control the exposure and to protect against further disease progression,” concluded the authors.

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