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Occupational Lung Disease

Occupational lung disease is the number one work-related illness in the United States based on the frequency, severity, and preventability of diseases. These illnesses are usually caused by extended exposure to irritating or toxic substances that may cause acute or chronic respiratory ailments, although severe single exposures can cause chronic lung disease as well.  Smoking can act synergistically to increase the severity of these diseases. The cost of occupational injuries and illnesses in the United States totals more than $170 billion per year.

  • In 2002, there were about 294,500 newly reported cases of occupational illness in the private industry, and 22,000 newly reported respiratory conditions. Overall, 2.5 per 10,000 full time workers developed nonfatal occupational respiratory diseases.
  • Occupational lung diseases are often not curable, but are always preventable. Improving ventilation, wearing protective equipment, changing work procedures, and educating workers are the key factors for prevention.

Several of the most common occupational lung diseases:

  • Occupational lung cancer: worldwide, about 20 to 30 percent of the male and 5 to 20 percent of the female working-age population may have been exposed to agents that cause cancer in the lungs during their working lives. These occupational exposures account for about 10.3 percent of cancer of the lung, trachea and bronchus, the most frequent occupational cancer.
  • Occupational asthma: the most common form of occupational lung disease.  An estimated 15 to 23 percent of new onset adult asthma cases in the U.S. are due to occupational exposures.  These exposures within the workplace can also aggravate pre-existing asthma.
  • Asbestosis: a progressive disease involving scarring of lung tissue as a result of exposure to the microscopic fibers of asbestos. An estimated 1.3 million employees in construction and industry face significant asbestos exposure on the job. Between 1980 and 2002 6,343 deaths were due to asbestosis.
  • Mesothelioma: an otherwise rare cancer of the chest lining caused by asbestos exposure. By the year 2030 there are estimates that asbestos will have caused 60,000 instances of mesothelioma that result in death.
  • Byssinosis (brown lung disease): a chronic condition involving obstruction of the small airways, severely impairing lung function. It is caused by dusts from hemp, flax, and cotton processing. Between 1979 and 2002 byssinosis caused approximately 140 deaths. However, more than 35,000 textile workers have been disabled by byssinosis.
  • Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (black lung disease): caused by the inhalation of coal dust that becomes imbedded in the lungs, causing them to harden, making breathing very difficult. An estimated 2.8 percent of coal miners are affected; about 0.2 percent have scarring on the lungs, the most severe form of the disease. Each year, close to 400 people die from black lung disease.
  • Silicosis: results from exposure to free crystalline silica in mines, foundries, blasting operations, stone, clay and glass manufacturing that cause scar tissue to form in the lungs. Silicosis substantially raises the risk of tuberculosis. Each year 200 people die with silicosis listed as a cause of death on their death certificates, a rate that has been stable since the early 1990’s. About 1 million workers are believed to have been exposed to silica dust.
  • Hypersensitivity pneumonitis: results from repeated exposure to fungus spores from moldy hay, bird droppings, or other organic dusts that causes the air sacs of the lungs to become inflamed; parts of the lungs may then develop fibrous scar tissue and cease to function normally in breathing. Deaths from hypersensitivity pneumonitis have been generally increasing from less than 20 per year in 1979 to 57 in 1999.