OBJECTIVE: To investigate the combined influence on respiratory health of smoking and exposure in an aluminium potroom. METHODS: In a cross sectional study of 75 potroom workers (23 never smokers, 38 current smokers, 14 ex-smokers) and 56 controls in the same plant (watchmen, craftsmen, office workers, laboratory employees; 18 non-smokers, 21 current smokers, 17 ex-smokers), prevalences of respiratory symptoms and spirometric indices were compared. RESULTS: Smokers in the potroom group had a lower prevalence of respiratory symptoms than never smokers or ex-smokers, which was significant for wheezing (2.6% v 17.4% and 28.6% respectively, both p < 0.01), whereas respiratory symptoms in controls tended to be highest in smokers (NS). No effects of potroom work on the prevalence of respiratory symptoms could be detected. In potroom workers, impairment of lung function due to occupational exposure was found only in non-smokers, with lower results for forced vital capacity (FVC) (98.8% predicted), forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) (96.1% predicted) and peak expiratory flow (PEF) (80.2% predicted) compared with controls (114.2, 109.9, and 105.9% predicted; each p < 0.001). Conversely, effects of smoking on lung function were only detectable in non-exposed controls (current smokers v non-smokers: FVC 98.8% v 114.2% predicted; p < 0.01; FEV1 95.5 v 109.9% predicted; p < 0.05). CONCLUSIONS: In a cross sectional survey such as this, the effects of both smoking and occupational exposure on respiratory health may be masked in subjects with both risk factors. This is probably due to strong selection processes which result in least susceptible subjects continuing to smoke and working in an atmosphere with respiratory irritants.
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