COPD can develop due to environmental hazards

Lung Illustration

Dear Doctors: I work in a big shop where we make custom furniture. My wife thinks it puts me at risk of COPD and insists I should use a mask. Is she right? I thought COPD was something that happens to smokers. Plus, wearing a mask isn't very comfortable.

Dear Reader: COPD is short for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It's an umbrella term for a group of diseases in which damage to the tissues of the lungs, along with inflammation, obstruct the airways and make it difficult to breathe.

Symptoms include shortness of breath, a persistent cough, difficulty taking a deep breath, wheezing, excess mucus and a feeling of tightness in the lungs and chest. Because the airways of someone with COPD are obstructed, they can't get enough oxygen. This causes an oxygen deficit in tissues throughout the body, which results in weakness, fatigue and a loss of stamina.

The two most common conditions associated with COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. In chronic bronchitis, the lining of the bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from the tiny air sacs of the lungs, become inflamed. This causes excess mucus production and a chronic cough. It also puts the person at increased risk of having repeated respiratory infections. In emphysema, those tiny air sacs, known as alveoli, become permanently damaged. This leads to the oxygen deficit and resulting fatigue and breathing difficulties that we discussed earlier.

You're correct that smoking is a primary cause of COPD. The condition develops in response to repeated and long-term exposure to irritating gases and fine particulates, both of which smoking delivers in abundance. However, COPD can be an industrial hazard as well. People who work in occupations as varied as construction, mining, agriculture, welding, brick laying, stonemasonry, textiles, painting, and hair and nail care can all be at risk. When workers in these professions are also smokers, their chance of developing COPD goes up.

Occupational health data show that your own work in a carpentry shop, which exposes you to an environment that is not kind to the lungs, does put you at risk of developing COPD. The act of cutting, carving and sanding wood creates fine, airborne particulates that can damage the lungs and impair their ability to function. So can the fumes and gases emitted by the paints, stains, shellacs and solvents typically used in making furniture.

Even in a well-ventilated shop, particulates and gases will remain in the air. Long-term exposure to these can irritate, inflame and even damage delicate lung tissues, which can eventually lead to COPD.

COPD is a progressive disease. That means it gets worse with the passage of time. Although there is no known cure, it can be managed with medications and changes to behavior. Fortunately, you can significantly lower your own risk of developing this condition with one easy step: Always wear a high-quality, well-fitted mask while at work. It may be a bit uncomfortable, but to protect your lungs, it's a small price to pay.

(Send your questions to [email protected], or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1955, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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