Several organs (lung, skin, thyroid, heart, bone marrow) are potential targets of cobalt (Co). Whereas there is no doubt that inhalation of Co alone may cause bronchial asthma, its role in the occurrence of hard metal disease is still controversial because most cases were reported in workers exposed not only to Co but also to other substances such as tungsten carbide, titanium carbide, iron, silica and diamond. To assess whether exposure to pure Co dust (metal, oxides, or salts) may lead to adverse health effects a cross sectional study was carried out among 82 workers in a Co refinery. The results were compared with those in a sex and age matched control group. The Co group had been exposed for 8.0 years on average (range 0.3-39.4). The geometric mean time weighted average exposure assessed with personal samplers (n = 82) was about 125 micrograms/m3 and 25% of the values were higher than 500 micrograms/m3. The concentrations of Co in blood and in urine after the shift were significantly correlated with those in air. Concentration of Co in urine increased during the workweek. A slight interference with thyroid metabolism (decreased T3, T4, and increased TSH), a slight reduction of some erythropoietic variables (red blood cells, haemoglobin, packed cell volume) and increased white cell count were found in the exposed workers. The exposed workers complained more often of dyspnoea and wheezing and had significantly more skin lesions (eczema, erythema) than control workers. Within the exposed group a dose-effect relation was found between the reduction of the forced expiratory volume in one second/vital capacity and the intensity of current exposure to Co assessed by the measurement of Co in air or in urine. The prevalence of dyspnoea was related to the dustiness of the workplace as reflected by statistically significant logistic regression between this symptom and the current levels of Co in air and in urine. No difference between lung volumes, ventilatory performances, carbon monoxide diffusing capacity, and serum myocardial creatine kinase and procollagen III peptide was found between the Co and control groups and no lung abnormalities were detected on the chest radiographs in both groups. The results suggest that exposure to high airborne concentrations of Co alone is not sufficient to cause pulmonary fibrosis. This finding is compatible with experimental studies indicating that interaction of other airborne pollutants with Co particles play a part in the pathogenesis of parenchymal lung lesions.
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