Background: Multiple reports have described associations between occupational inhalant exposure and lung disease. Previous occupational lung disease investigations have studied populations consisting of both smokers and nonsmokers. Smoking complicates interpretation of toxicant exposure-response relationships. The objective of this study was to determine whether, among never-smokers, occupational exposure to gases, dusts, or fumes is associated with a history of respiratory disorders and pulmonary function test defined obstructive lung disease.
Methods: We performed a retrospective analysis of 517 never-smoker patients who underwent pulmonary function testing in our clinical laboratory between 1986 and 1999. We calculated the relative risks of developing adverse respiratory health outcomes given a history of exposure to occupational inhalants.
Results: Compared with persons with a negative occupational exposure history, exposed persons had an increased risk of reporting a history of bronchitis [relative risk (RR), 1.59; 95% confidence interval (CI), 1.20-2.12], recurrent lung infections (RR, 2.09; 95% CI, 1.14-3.82), and bronchodilator use (RR, 1.61; 95% CI, 1.26-2.06). There was also a statistically significant association between a history of inhalant exposure and the finding of an obstructive ventilatory defect on pulmonary function testing (RR, 1.79; 95% CI, 1.12-2.85). A history of inhalant exposure was not associated with self-reported asthma (RR, 1.08; 95% CI, 0.83-1.41). The population attributable risk estimates for respiratory disorders due to inhalant exposure were: bronchitis, 23.6%; recurrent lung infection, 36.3%; bronchodilator use, 24.3%; and obstructive lung disease, 29.6%.
Conclusions: Occupational inhalant exposure is a strong risk factor for lung disease in this population of never smokers. A significant burden of respiratory disease in this population may be attributable to occupational inhalant exposure.