Occupational lung disease

Occupational lung diseases are occupational diseases affecting the respiratory system, including occupational asthma, black lung disease (coalworker's pneumoconiosis), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), mesothelioma, and silicosis. Infectious lung diseases can also be acquired in an occupational context. Exposure to substances like flock and silica can cause fibrosing lung disease, whereas exposure to carcinogens like asbestos and beryllium can cause lung cancer. Occupational cases of interstitial lung disease may be misdiagnosed as COPD, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, or a myriad of other diseases; leading to a delay in identification of the causative agent.[1][2]

Types of occupational lung diseases


Main article: Asbestosis

Asbestosis is a fibrosing interstitial lung disease caused by exposure to forms of the mineral asbestos.[1]


Main article: Occupational asthma

Asthma is a respiratory disease that can begin or worsen due to exposure at work and is characterized by episodic narrowing of the respiratory tract. Occupational asthma has a variety of causes, including sensitization to a specific substance, causing an allergic response; or a reaction to an irritant that is inhaled in the workplace. Exposure to various substances can also worsen pre-existing asthma. People who work in isocyanate manufacturing, who use latex gloves, or who work in an indoor office environment are at higher risk for occupational asthma than the average US worker. Approximately 2 million people in the US have occupational asthma.[1]

Coalworker's pneumoconiosis (black lung)

Coalworker's pneumoconiosis, also called "black lung disease", is an interstitial lung disease caused by long-term exposure (over 10 years) to coal dust. Symptoms include shortness of breath and lowered pulmonary function. It can be fatal when advanced. Between 1970-1974, prevalence of CWP among US coal miners who had worked over 25 years was 32%; the same group saw a prevalence of 9% in 2005-2006.[1]


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a respiratory disease that can encompass chronic bronchitis and/or emphysema. 15% of the cases of COPD in the United States can be attributed to occupational exposure, including exposure to silica and coal dust. People who work in mining, construction, manufacturing (specifically textiles, rubber, plastic, and leather), building, and utilities are at higher risk for COPD than the average US worker.[1]

Indium lung

Main article: Indium lung

Indium lung is an interstitial lung disease caused by occupational exposure to indium tin oxide.[2]


Main article: Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium, part of which is the pleura, the lining of the lungs. Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos.[1]

Silo-filler's disease

Silo-Filler's disease (not to be confused with farmer's lung associated with inhalation of biologic dusts) results from inhalation of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) gas from fresh silage. The presentation is variable depending on level of exposure. Often the gas penetrates throughout the lung and if severe can manifest as a form of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, such as significant pulmonary edema, hyalinized alveolar membranes, congestion and other respiratory illnesses.[3][4]


Main article: Silicosis

Silicosis is a fibrosing interstitial lung disease caused by inhaling fine particles of silica, most commonly in the form of quartz or cristobalite. Short-term exposures of large amounts of silica or long-term (10 years or more) exposure of lower levels of silica can cause silicosis. In 1968, more than 1060 US workers died of silicosis; this number fell to 170 by 2005.[1]

World Trade Center lung

World Trade Center lung is a cluster of diseases caused by exposure to fallout at Ground Zero of the September 11 attacks in 2001. These diseases include asthma, asthmatic bronchitis, terminal airways disease, sarcoidosis, and acute eosinophilic pneumonia.[2]

Occupational environmental exposure


Main article: Arsenic

Arsenic is classified as an IARC Group 1 carcinogen and is a cause of lung cancer. Workers can be exposed to arsenic through work with some pesticides or in copper smelting.[1]


Main article: Asbestos

Asbestos is a mineral which was extensively used in the United States to fireproof buildings and textiles, among other items, in the 1950s-1980s. Workers are frequently exposed to asbestos during demolition and renovation work, which can cause asbestosis and/or mesothelioma. Asbestos exposure can also cause pleural effusion, diffuse pleural fibrosis, pleural plaques, and non-mesothelioma lung cancer. Smoking greatly increases the lung cancer risk of asbestos exposure.[1]


Main article: BCME

BCME (Bis(chloromethyl) ether) is associated with small cell lung cancer in workers who have been exposed.[1][5] Exposure can occur via direct manufacture of BCME or its presence as a byproduct.[1]


Main article: Beryllium

Beryllium is classified as an IARC Group 1 carcinogen and is used in a wide variety of industries. Those who are manufacturing workers, dental technicians, machinists, jewelers, plumbers, electricians, precious metal reclamation workers, and welders are at risk for beryllium exposure.[1]


Main article: Cadmium

Cadmium is classified as an IARC Group 1 carcinogen and it is a cause of several cancers, including lung cancer. Workers can be exposed to cadmium through welding, zinc smelting, copper smelting, lead smelting, electroplating, battery manufacture, plastics manufacture, and in alloying.[1]


Main article: Chromium

Chromium is classified as an IARC Group 1 carcinogen and is linked to lung cancer. Workers can be exposed to chromium via welding, steel manufacturing, pigment/dye manufacturing, and electroplating.[1]

Coal dust

Main article: Coal dust

Exposure to coal dust is the cause of coalworker's pneumoconiosis. It can also exacerbate or cause COPD.[1]

Diesel exhaust

Main article: Diesel exhaust

Diesel exhaust contains a variety of gaseous and particulate chemicals, including soot, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and other known carcinogens.[1]


Main article: Flocking (texture)

Flocking is the technique of adding small pieces of nylon or other material to a backing, usually a textile, to create a contrasting texture. Inhalation of flock can cause flock worker's lung.[1]


Main article: Nanoparticles

The high surface area to volume ratio of nanoparticles may make them an inhalation hazard for workers exposed to them. This is a topic of ongoing research as of 2015.[1]


Main article: Nickel

Nickel is classified by the IARC as a Group 1 carcinogen; nickel compound exposure is associated with nasal cancer as well as lung cancer. Workers may be exposed to nickel in machining/grinding industry, nickel extraction/production, welding, and electroplating.[1]

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), fused-ring chemicals formed during the combustion of fossil fuels, are metabolized by the cytochrome P450 complex to highly reactive carbocations, which can mutate DNA and cause cancer. Workers may be exposed to PAHs while working in a foundry, in the roofing industry, or due to environmental tobacco smoke.[1]


Main article: Silica

Besides causing silicosis, inhalation of silica can cause or exacerbate COPD. It can also impair lung function in general and cause cancer by oxidation damage. It is classified as a "known human carcinogen" (Group 1 carcinogen) by the IARC. Exposure is common for people working in tunneling, quarrying, construction, sandblasting, roadway repair, mining, and foundry work.[1]

Tobacco smoke

Main article: Passive smoke

Tobacco smoke is a known carcinogen. Workers in the hospitality industry may be exposed to tobacco smoke in the workplace, especially in environments like casinos and bars/restaurants.[1]

Infectious exposure


Main article: Influenza

Health care professionals are at risk of occupational influenza exposure; during a pandemic influenza, anyone in a close environment is at risk, including those in an office environment.[1]


Main article: Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis is a lung disease endemic in many parts of the world. Health care professionals and prison guards are at high risk for occupational exposure to tuberculosis, since they work with populations with high rates of the disease.[1]



  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 "Respiratory Diseases: Occupational Risks". National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. 21 December 2012. Retrieved 23 March 2015.
  2. 1 2 3 Sauler, Maor; Gulati, Mridu (2012-12). "Newly Recognized Occupational and Environmental Causes of Chronic Terminal Airways and Parenchymal Lung Disease". Clinics in chest medicine. 33 (4): 667–680. doi:10.1016/j.ccm.2012.09.002. ISSN 0272-5231. PMC 3515663Freely accessible. PMID 23153608. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  3. Chan-Yeung M, Ashley MJ, Grzybowski S. Grain dust and the lungs. Can Med Assoc J. 1978 May 20;118(10):1271-4. Review. PMID 348288 Free PMC Article
  4. Gurney JW, et al. Agricultural disorders of the lung. Radiographics. 1991 Jul;11(4):625-34. Review. PMID 1887117
  5. "Bis(chloromethyl)ether (BCME) (CASRN 542-88-1)". IRIS (Integrated Risk Information System). EPA. 31 October 2014. Retrieved 31 March 2015.
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