It is well recognised that exposure to respirable coalmine dust causes a reduction in lung function but it has not been clear whether the impairment of function is sufficient to cause disability, unless progressive massive fibrosis occurs. From a study of 4059 men without progressive massive fibrosis who worked in the coal industry for at least ten years from the 1950s, and who were followed up and re-examined medically more than 20 years later, a subgroup was selected using criteria intended to favour those who may have suffered greater than average effects of dust exposure. These 199 men had left the coal industry before normal retiral age, had taken other jobs, and had reported symptoms of chronic bronchitis at follow up. The inverse relation between dust exposure and FEV1 among these 199 men was much more severe than the average effects previously shown among more representative groups of coalminers. The effect of exposure to respirable dust was estimated conservatively as an impairment of about 2 ml FEV1 per unit of dust exposure (gh/m3). The estimated effect among ex-smokers was more severe. These compare with a previous estimate, based on a less selected population, of 0.6 ml FEV1 per gh/m3. The new estimate in this group of 199 men corresponds to an average loss of 600 ml FEV1 in response to a moderately high dust exposure to 300 gh/m3, with correspondingly higher losses in the ex-smokers. These findings show that among a group of men intentionally selected to include those who may have suffered greater than average effects of dust exposure, the relation between exposure and FEV1 is consistent with the view that in some men even moderately high exposure to dust causes severe impairment of lung function.
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