ALA awareness campaign highlights jobs that pose risk of COPD

Mining, agriculture, manufacturing may expose workers to hazards

Marisa Wexler, MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler, MS |

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A new campaign will highlight the ways certain jobs, including those related to mining, agriculture, and manufacturing, can increase the risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Long-term exposure to dust, chemicals, fumes, and vapors in the workplace may all lead to COPD, said the American Lung Association, which launched the awareness campaign,

“This new project is critical to educating people about which careers can increase their risk for COPD and how to identify symptoms as early as possible to be discussed with their healthcare provider,” Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the ALA, said in an association press release.

As part of the campaign, which is supported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the association will host a patient-focused webinar on June 3 from 4-5 p.m. EDT focusing on jobs that may increase the risk of COPD and ways to reduce or prevent damaging exposures at work.

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Webinar to feature COPD patient exposed at work

The webinar will feature speakers from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, as well as a COPD patient who was exposed to workplace-related risk factors.

COPD is characterized by inflammation in the lungs, which obstructs the airways and leads to symptoms such as difficulty breathing, wheezing, and a frequent cough that brings up mucus or phlegm. Long-lasting, unexplained fatigue and frequent lung infections are also common among people with COPD.

Exactly what causes COPD to develop isn’t known, but studies have shown that people with a history of exposures to substances that can irritate the lungs are more likely to develop the disorder. The most infamous lung irritant associated with COPD is cigarette smoke, but other irritants like air pollution and dust also have been linked to COPD.

Since exposure to lung irritants is known to increase the risk of developing COPD, people who work at jobs where they are regularly exposed to these irritants may be more likely to develop COPD.

This can include people exposed to smoke or fumes from fires or machines, dust from minerals like silica, coal, and asbestos or organic sources like cotton and wood, or vapors from chemicals. Those who work in jobs where exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke is frequent may also be at risk.

Many people who work in jobs that can increase the risk of COPD aren’t aware of this risk, and people who develop symptoms may be inclined to brush them off as a natural consequence of aging or smoking rather than a sign of disease, the ALA said.

“I did not realize that working in a hair and nail salon doing nails would put me at risk” for COPD, said Mary Cohen, who worked at a salon for years and was subsequently diagnosed with COPD.

The ALA wants to make sure more people realize the risks. “Occupational COPD can have a significant toll on a person’s work life and overall quality of life,” said Wimmer. “And it tends to come on slowly and get worse over time.”

Someone who’s starting to experience symptoms “may begin taking the elevator instead of the stairs because of shortness of breath, develop a lingering cough after sweeping sawdust, or must regularly call in sick due to respiratory infections,” he said.

The association hopes to encourage people in at-risk professions to seek medical attention if they’re experiencing these issues, as getting an early diagnosis and starting care early can help facilitate better outcomes.