Just over one-third of the cases of COPD in people who have never smoked can be linked to occupational exposures, say the researchers, who published their findings in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
In addition, new research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that COPD, which includes asthma and bronchitis, now affects about 24 million Americans, most of them past or current smokers. Nearly 58 percent do not even know they may have the disease.
"In 2000, for the first time, the number of women dying from COPD surpassed the number of men," says David M. Mannino, M.D. Mannino is the lead author of The Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Surveillance United States, 1971-2000, reprinted in the October issue of Respiratory Care.
In 2000, the most recent statistics available, COPD was responsible for 8 million physician office and hospital outpatient visits, 1.5 million emergency department visits, 726,000 hospitalizations, and 119,000 deaths. In May 2001, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute said that the cost of COPD in both direct and indirect costs for the year 2000 was nearly $30.4 billion.
The lead researcher for the NIOSH study, Dr. Eva Hnizdo, said researchers analyzed a representative sample of the U.S. adult population to identify industries and occupations at increased risk of COPD. "We found that 19 percent of COPD cases can be attributed to working in industries and occupations that pose a risk for such illnesses," she said. "The findings demonstrate that job-related COPD contributes significantly to the overall burden of COPD in the U.S. adult population."
Researchers found that blue-collar workers in the plastic, leather, textile, rubber and food products industries had had twice the risk of COPD than white-collar wokers, even after taking smoking history into consideration.
"Our findings also suggest a risk in several industries such as utilities, sales, and office building services and occupations such as records processing clerks that have not previously been associated with COPD risk," said Hnizdo.
Researchers noted reducing occupational exposures to gases, fumes and dusts can help prevent COPD, and suggested employers institute smoking-cessation programs and medical screening for early diagnosis and treatment of COPD.
COPD is a slow, progressive disease that is characterized by a decrease in the ability of the lungs to move air in and out and to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide, resulting in decreased lung function. It is also commonly called emphysema, and involves both emphysema and chronic bronchitis.