The susceptibility to develop many pulmonary diseases is influenced by environmental factors. This chapter will focus on occupational and toxic chemical exposures. However, a variety of nonoccupational indoor exposures such as environmental tobacco smoke exposure (lung cancer), radon gas (lung cancer), and biomass fuel cooking (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD]) also should be considered. Particle size is an important determinant of the impact of inhaled environmental exposures on the respiratory system. Particles >10 μm in diameter typically are captured by the upper airway. Particles 2.5–10 μm in diameter will likely deposit in the upper tracheobronchial tree, while smaller particles (including nanoparticles) will reach the alveoli. Water-soluble gases like ammonia are absorbed in the upper airways and produce irritative and bronchoconstrictive responses, while less water-soluble gases (e.g., phosgene) may reach the alveoli and cause a life-threatening acute chemical pneumonitis.
APPROACH TO THE PATIENT: Environmental Lung Diseases
Because there are many types of occupational lung disease (pneumoconiosis) that can mimic diseases not known to relate to environmental factors, obtaining a careful occupational history is essential. In addition to the types of occupation performed by the pt, the specific environmental exposures, use of protective respiratory devices, and ventilation of the work environment can provide key information. Assessing the temporal development of symptoms relative to the pt’s work schedule also can be very useful.
The physical examination may indicate the type and severity of lung disease, but usually does not assist in identifying a specific environmental etiology. Pulmonary function tests should be used to assess the severity of impairment, but they typically do not suggest a specific diagnosis. Changes in spirometry before and after a work shift can provide strong evidence for bronchoconstriction in suspected occupational asthma. Chest x-ray is helpful in the assessment of environmental lung disease, but it may over- or underestimate the functional impact of pneumoconioses. Some chest x-ray patterns are distinctive for certain occupational lung diseases; chest CT scans can provide a more detailed evaluation. Specific laboratory tests can be invaluable for diagnosing certain environmental lung diseases, such as evaluation of urinary heavy metal concentrations to assess cadmium in battery plant workers.
OCCUPATIONAL EXPOSURES AND PULMONARY DISEASE
In addition to exposures to asbestos that may occur during the production of asbestos products (from mining to manufacturing), common occupational asbestos exposures occur in shipbuilding and other construction trades (e.g., pipefitting, boilermaking) and in the manufacture of safety garments and friction materials (e.g., brake and clutch linings). Along with worker exposure in these areas, bystander exposure (e.g., spouses) can be responsible for some asbestos-related lung diseases.
A range of respiratory diseases has been associated with asbestos exposure. Pleural plaques indicate that asbestos exposure has occurred, but they are typically not symptomatic. Interstitial lung disease, often referred to as asbestosis, is pathologically and radiologically similar to ...