OBJECTIVE: To investigate the clinical and sociomedical outcome in patients with various clinical manifestations of humidifier disease and work related asthma after removal from further exposure. METHODS: Follow up investigation (range 1-13 years) of respiratory symptoms, spirometry, airway responsiveness, sickness absence, and working situation in patients with (I) humidifier fever (n = 12), (II) obstructive type of humidifier lung (n = 8), (III) restrictive type of humidifier lung (n = 4), and (IV) work related asthma (n = 22). All patients were working at departments in synthetic fibre plants with microbiological exposure from contaminated humidification systems or exposure to small particles (< 1 micron) of oil mist. RESULTS: At follow up patients with work related asthma were less often symptom free (37%, 7/19) than patients with humidifier disease (I, II, III) (67%, 16/24). Mean forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) of patients with obstructive impairment had been increased significantly at follow up but still remained below the predicted value. Mean forced vital capacity (FVC) of patients with initially restrictive impairment had returned to normal values at follow up. Airway hyperresponsiveness at diagnosis persisted in patients with obstructive impairment (II + IV 14/17, but disappeared in patients with humidifier fever (3/3) and restrictive type of humidifier lung (2/2). In patients with obstructive impairment (II + IV), FVC and FEV1 at diagnosis were negatively associated with the duration between onset of symptoms and diagnosis and the number of years of exposure. Those with positive pre-employment history of respiratory disease had a lower FEV1 at diagnosis. Sickness absence due to respiratory symptoms decreased in all groups of patients after removal from further exposure, but this was most impressive in patients with the humidifier lung (II, III) and patients with work related asthma (IV). At follow up 83% of the patients were still at work at the same production site, whereas 11% received a disability pension because of respiratory disease. CONCLUSION: In patients with work related respiratory disease caused by exposure from contaminated humidification systems or oil mist, removal from further exposure resulted in clinical improvement, although, especially in those with obstructive impairment, signs persisted. Because of the possibility of transferring patients to exposure-free departments most patients could be kept at work.
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