A study population of 3086 employees was identified in 18 carbon black production plants in seven European countries. Respiratory health questionnaires, spirometry, and chest radiographs were used to estimate effects on health and personal monitoring procedures were employed to measure current exposure to inspirable and respirable dust along with sulphur and carbon monoxide. The low concentrations of gaseous contaminants made the generation of their current and cumulative exposure indices impossible. Low responses from some plants restricted the final analysis to 1742 employees in 15 plants (81% response rate) for respiratory symptoms and spirometry, and 1096 chest radiographs from 10 plants (74% response rate). In total, 1298 respirable and 1317 inspirable dust samples, as well as 1301 sulphur dioxide and 1322 carbon monoxide samples were collected. This study is the first to include a comprehensive and concurrent assessment of occupational exposure to carbon black dust and its associated gaseous contaminants. Cough, sputum, and the symptoms of chronic bronchitis were found to be associated with increasing indices of current exposure. Lung function tests also showed small decreases in relation to increasing dust exposure in both smokers and non-smokers. Nearly 25% of the chest radiographs showed small opacities of category 0/1 or greater. These were strongly associated with indices of cumulative dust exposure. The findings are consistent with a non-irritant effect of carbon black dust on the airways combined with dust retention in the lungs. Further cross sectional studies are planned to investigate whether long term exposure to carbon black dust causes damage to the lung parenchyma.
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