What Is Occupational Lung Disease?

The inhalation of harmful mists, vapors, particles or gases while a person works is the main cause occupational lung disease. Learn why!

The inhalation of harmful mists, vapors, particles or gases while a person works is the main cause of what is called occupational lung disease. Based on the size of the particles or what is inhaled and where it ends up in the airways or lungs will depend on where the disease will develope and the type of disease. In some cases larger particles may end up trapped in the nose or large airways. But the smaller particles tend to end up in the lungs. Sometimes these particles will dissolve and can be absorbed into the blood stream. The larger particles that do not dissolve are usually removed by the bodies natural defenses. A body has many different means of getting rid of inhaled particles. Mucous in the airways will coat the particle making it easier to cough up. When particles reach the lungs there are special scavenger cells that engulf the particles and render them harmless. Inhaled particles, depending on what they are, will produce a different reaction in the body.

Inhaling particles such as silica or quartz dust can cause permanent scarring in the lungs that is called silicosis. This is the oldest known occupational lung disease found in people who have inhaled silica dust for years. Symptoms tend to appear after as much as 20 years of exposure, but in profession such as sand blasting, manufacturing abrasive soaps or tunneling the symptoms can appear in less than three years. Symptoms begin with a condition called bronchitis that causes coughing and shortness of breath. Over a course of the next five years the breathing problems may get worse and since the lung damage puts strain on the heart, this disease could lead to heart failure. A chest x-ray will show a distinct patter or scarring and nodules with silicosis. This disease cannot be cured but if the inhalation of silica is stopped in the early stages of the disease the progression of the disease may stop as well.

Black lung disease is another form of occupational lung disease. It is caused by deposits of coal dust in the lungs that results from inhaling the dust over a long period of time. Coal dust tends to collect in the lungs around the small airways known as bronchioles and will eventually spread throughout the lungs showing up as small spots on an x-ray. This disease causes no symptoms even though many people who have the disease may cough or become short of breath from other related problems. The only way to prevent this disease is by adequately suppressing the coal dust at a work site. Workers should have chest x-rays ever 4 years so the disease can be detected early. Any worker showing signs of the disease should be transferred to an area of lower coal dust levels to prevent progressive massive fibrosis which causes coughing and disabling shortness of breath.



Asbestosis is a form of occupational lung disease caused by breathing asbestos dust. This fibrous mineral causes wide spread scarring of the lung tissues and settles deep in the lungs. In most cases there is a thickening of the two layers of membrane that cover the lungs. Anyone working with asbestos is at risk, as is workers demolishing buildings that contain asbestos. Symptoms of asbestosis appear gradually after many scars have formed causing the lungs to loose their elasticity. They begin with a mild shortness of breath that becomes progressively difficult. In some cases respiratory failure may develop.

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