Airborne occupational exposure and respiratory illness

12 Apr Airborne occupational exposure and respiratory illness

The risks of airborne occupational exposure (such as pesticides, fumes, mineral dust) and impact on lung health1

It is known that exposure to certain particles or chemicals, after inhalation, have lifelong consequences to respiratory health. Little is known about the timeframe of initial symptoms such as chronic bronchitis and changes in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) pulmonary assessment. The health burden of cigarette smoking and development of COPD is also well established, however, workplace exposure to airborne particles must also be taken into consideration in addressing the prevalence of COPD in the population.

This was demonstrated in the study conducted by Faruque et al (2021) in the Lifelines Cohort Study in Netherlands, whereby 35,739 active workers were evaluated and tested (through spirometry) at baseline and followed up approximately in 4.5 years. The workers were assessed based on the already developed ALOHA job-exposure matrix. Workers with higher exposure rates to occupational airborne particles such as biological dust, mineral dust, gases/fumes, pesticides, solvents, and metals were followed up. At follow-up approximately 6% developed a chronic cough, 4.7% – chronic phlegm, 2.5% – chronic bronchitis and 4.5% – airway obstruction. Interestingly, the study has found that high exposures to pesticides led to the highest chance of developing respiratory symptoms and presence of airway obstruction through spirometry testing.

Through this study, it is important to understand not only the lifelong deterioration of respiratory function due to particle/chemical exposures, but also the short-term implications. In Australia, protection from airborne particles in the workplace is widely governed by professional bodies and need to be followed to preserve good health. The resulting symptoms and diseases not only impact the lung tissue health but has an upstream effect to the entire body including the heart, the kidneys, and the liver. By protecting own-self if having to work with these particles it is possible to safeguard from the short- and long-term consequences that may follow.

Link to the study:


1Faruque, O et al (2021). Airborne occupational exposures and the risk of developing respiratory symptoms and airway obstruction in the Lifelines Cohort Study. Thorax. Published online: 02.03.2021. Accessed on: 06.03.2021.