5 Jobs That Can Destroy Your Lungs

5 Jobs That Can Destroy Your Lungs

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August 15, 2011
By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Contributing Columnist

Asthma is on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 25 million Americans have asthma. The number of Americans with asthma has grown by 4.3 million in just an 8-year span from 2001 to 2009.  This explosive growth in asthma rates has occurred despite improvements in rates of exposure to outdoor pollution and second hand smoke. So why is asthma on the rise?  Could be that indoor pollution has increased.  Which indoor work environments are dangerous for your lungs? Which jobs put your lungs most at risk? And what can you do to protect your lungs at work?

What is asthma? Asthma is a serious respiratory condition indicated by bronchial spasms, shortness of breathe and in some cases, inability to breathe.  Asthma can strike at any age but it usually starts during childhood. In fact, among the new cases of asthma in the U.S., an alarming number involve children. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 9.6% of all children have been diagnosed with asthma, with boys suffering at  higher rate (11%) and African-American children suffering at the very highest rate (17%).  (Read more about why your asthma may get worse at night.)

We have scoured occupational hazards reports and academic studies to identify the 5 worst jobs for your lungs:

1. Hairdresser and Hair Stylists.  Considered a glamorous profession, hair dressing and hair styling can also destroy your lungs. Numerous studies have found that hairdressers  suffer some of the highest rates of asthma and bronchitis among all professions. Little wonder. Hairdressers use hair sprays and other noxious or fume-producing chemicals all day. Chief among the indoor pollutants that cause asthma and bronchitis in hairdressers are ammonia, hydrogen peroxide and persulfates.

A 1997 study from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health found that hairdressers had twice the rate of asthma  as the general population. The study examined the health histories of 4433 female hairdressers and compared them with an equal number of workers from other professions.

What they found was startling. Over a 15 year period from 1980 to 1995, hairdressers suffered 70% higher rates of asthma and 20% higher rates of bronchitis than non-hairdressers. 

Perhaps even more alarming was that at the beginning of the study on 5.6% of the hairdressers reported having asthma lung problems but at the end of the study that number had climbed to 10.1%.   The rates of chronic bronchitis in the group climbed from 3.9% to 5.6%.

It's clear that indoor air pollution at hair dressing shops is a cause for concern. And not just for hair dressers. If you go to a hair dresser more than occasionally, you should ear a mask to protect your lungs from the assault of sprays.

2. Bakers.  Bakers are exposed daily to fine flour dust. Over time, a disturbing number or bakers develop lung problems, including asthma, rhinitis, bronchitis, wheezing  to worse.In fact, respiratory problems among bakers is so well-documented that the phenomenum is sometimes referred to as "Baker's lung disease". In 2003,  researchers at the Health and Safety Laboratory in Sheffield, England examined 113 bakers and found that 50% reported breathing problems,  27% reported nasal irritation, 25% reported a respiratory symptom of some type, 16% experienced chest tightness, 10% had persistent cough and 10% reported wheezing.

What exactly causes the high incidence of asthma, bronchitis and other lung problems among bakers? The culprits include potential allergens such as wheat and other cereals, dust mites,  grain weevil, Alternaria and Aspergillus organisms, substances used to improve dough.  

3.  Laundry Cleaners.  Dry cleaning work is bad for your lungs. Workers in dry cleaners are exposed to petro-chemicals and other toxic agents that increase their risk for lung cancer. A study completed in 2000 at Bremen Institute for Prevention Research and Social Medicine in Germany found that non-smoking women who worked at laundries and dry cleaners experienced 83% higher rates of lung cancer than other women.

4. Car Painters.  Workers who apply car paint experience elevated rates of asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory problems.

5. Bus Drivers/Taxi Drivers. No surprise here. Toxic car exhaust accounts for elevated respiratory problems among professional drivers.

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