Occupational causes of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Rev Environ Health. 2007 Jul-Sep;22(3):195-212. doi: 10.1515/reveh.2007.22.3.195.


The relation between Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema (CBE), and exposure to coal dust is well established. This paper reviews the evidence relating to other occupational causes of COPD, including industries associated with exposure to fumes, chemical substances, and dusts. A review of key literature has been carried out with a focus on the magnitude of risks and levels of exposure causing disabling health effects. The literature suggests that elevated risks of developing COPD are clearly associated with several occupations, with risk estimates being high in some, even after taking into account the effect of confounders, such as smoking. Of particular concern are agricultural workers who can be exposed to a variety of gases and organic dusts, among whom CBE is clearly elevated, particularly for pig farmers and exposure to endotoxins, with an increased annual decline in lung function. Similarly, cotton textile workers are exposed to a mixture of substances affecting development of atopy, byssinosis, and CBE, and across-shift and long-term decline in lung function. Atopy also has an important role in the development of COPD in flour mill workers and bakers, with those sensitized to bakery allergens having a greater lung function decline than non-sensitized individuals. Welding processes involve a range of potential chemical, physical and radiation hazards. The average reduction in FEV1 associated with welding fumes is similar to that associated with smoking. Challenges in assessing the evidence include variation in diagnostic methods; concurrent exposure to cigarette smoke (direct or second-hand) and multiple work-place irritants; healthy worker selection/survivor effects; poor exposure definition. Raising awareness of occupational causes of COPD among employers, employees, and health service professionals is important.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants, Occupational / toxicity
  • Humans
  • Occupational Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Occupational Exposure*
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / chemically induced*


  • Air Pollutants, Occupational