Work-Related Lung Disorders

Work-Related Lung Disorders | Dr. Ali Ghahary

A Kelowna man, Kerry Laramee, recently spoke out about his terminal lung disease as a warning to other workers who may be exposed to certain toxic materials in the workplace – and he wants others to be aware and speak out about any potential health risks within their work environment, as well as take the necessary precautions to protect themselves.

The most common work-related lung diseases include:

• Asthma
• Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
• Interstitial or fibrotic lung diseases
• Hypersensitivity pneumonitis
• Bronchiolitis obliterans / airway destruction
• Lung infections
• Lung cancer

Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition that affects thousands of Canadians, and billions of people on a worldwide scale. Common symptoms of asthma include coughing, wheezing, chest pain, and shortness of breath. Individuals with asthma will also often have a difficult time sleeping because of their symptoms. It can be triggered by certain allergens including pet dander, dust, mold, and other chemical exposures in the workplace. If your asthma is already pre-existing, then those workplace exposures may exacerbate your symptoms.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
COPD is a lung condition that can affect individuals, though it is especially common in smokers. However, it can also be the result of chemical exposure in the workplace by breathing in airborne substances. Aside from tobacco, common exposures include organic dusts (such as wood and grains), mineral dusts, metal fumes, as well as chemical gases and vapours.

Interstitial or Fibrotic Lung Diseases
An interstitial or fibrotic lung disease can be caused by inhaling things such as asbestos, silica, coal dust, and other types of metals. By inhaling these, this can lead to inflammation and scarring, which then leads to interstitial lung disease, and can even present similar to a condition known as sarcoidosis.

Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis
This is a condition that causes an inflammatory reaction in the lungs due to inhalation of certain substances such as bacteria, mold, and other types of chemicals. Symptoms of hypersensitivity pneumonitis include shortness of breath, chills, and even fever. Hypersensitivity pneumonitis can also lead to interstitial lung disease.

Bronchiolitis Obliterans / Airway Destruction
Very specific chemicals, such as diacetyl, can cause the airways to become chronically obstructed. This can progress to scarring of the airways as well as obstructive lung disease.

Lung Infections
If you come into contact with people who are ill within the workplace, you can also develop an infection. A common source that can lead to lung infections, aside from germs, are humidifiers that have been contaminated. Occupational infections can include influenza, tuberculosis, or legionella.

Lung Cancer
Like COPD, lung cancer is most common in individuals who are or were smokers. In fact, smoking is the cause for at least 95% of all lung cancer cases that are diagnosed. However, lung cancer is not just limited to smokers, as the risk of developing lung cancer increases when exposed to certain workplace chemicals such as exhaust fumes from diesel, silica, and asbestos.

If you have any of the aforementioned symptoms or are concerned about any work-related lung disorders, it may be a good idea to speak your family physician. That being said, there is good news in the sense that many of the aforementioned work-related lung diseases can, in fact, be prevented – either by all-together eliminating or reducing the exposure to certain substances. This can be done through improving the exhaust ventilation system in the workplace, opting to replace dangerous materials with ones that are safer, as well as wearing a protective mask if you are at risk of being exposed to any such materials and chemicals.