A high proportion of textile workers handling cotton and flax complain of respiratory symptoms and show a loss in lung function. These effects are reversible in the early stages but the degree to which they lead to permanent respiratory disability is unknown. Two surveys were therefore conducted in which respiratory function and symptoms were compared in ex-textile workers and in control subjects who had never been exposed to textile dusts. One survey was of ex-flax workers in Northern Ireland. The present survey was of ex-cotton workers in Lancashire. A survey of random population samples in Oldham and Bolton, in both of which cotton had formerly been the most important source of employment, was conducted. After allowing for age, height, and smoking, lung function was about 2-8% lower in the ex-textile workers than in controls who had never been exposed to any dust. Ex-textile workers were slightly shorter than the controls, suggestive of past social and nutritional deprivation which may have contributed to the decrement in lung function. There was evidence of a small but increasing decrement in lung function with an increase in a "dust exposure" score. For men, about 15 years of heavy dust exposure was associated with a loss in FEV1 equivalent to that shown by light or ex-smokers. For women, 15 years of heavy dust exposure appeared to be associated with a decrement in FEV1 about half that of light smoking.
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