A previous large medical survey of active and retired sheet metal workers with 20 or more years in the trade indicated an unexpectedly high prevalence of obstructive pulmonary disease among both smokers and non-smokers. This study utilised interviews with a cross section of the previously surveyed group to explore occupational risk factors for lung disease. Four hundred and seven workers were selected from the previously surveyed group on the basis of their potential for exposure to fibreglass and asbestos. Selection was independent of health state, and excluded welders. A detailed history of occupational exposure was obtained by telephone interview for 333 of these workers. Exposure data were analysed in relation to previously collected data on chronic bronchitis, obstructive lung disease, and personal characteristics. Assessment of the effects of exposure to fibreglass as distinct from the effects of exposure to asbestos has been difficult in previous studies of construction workers. The experienced workers studied here have performed a diversity of jobs involving exposure to many different types of materials, and this enabled exposure to each dust to be evaluated separately. The risk of chronic bronchitis increased sharply by pack-years of cigarettes smoked; current smokers had a double risk compared with those who had never smoked or had stopped smoking. The occurrence of chronic bronchitis also increased with increasing duration of exposure to asbestos. Workers with a history of high intensity exposure to fibreglass had a more than doubled risk of chronic bronchitis. Obstructive lung disease, defined by results of pulmonary function tests at the medical survey, was also related to both smoking and occupational risk factors. Number of pack years smoked was the strongest predictor of obstructive lung disease. Duration of direct and indirect exposure to welding fume was also a positive predictor of obstructive lung disease. Duration of exposure to asbestos was significantly associated with obstructive lung disease but the dose-response relation was inconsistent, especially for those with higher pack-years of smoking exposure. Exposure to fibreglass was not a risk factor for obstructive lung disease.
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