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Respiratory health of workers exposed to metal dusts and foundry fumes in a copper refinery.
  1. G Ostiguy,
  2. C Vaillancourt,
  3. R Bégin
  1. Hopital Maisonneuve-Rosemont, Canada.


    OBJECTIVES--To assess airflow limitation in workers exposed long term to metal dust, the prevalence of pleural plaques in those workers exposed in the past to asbestos, the influence of pleural plaques on lung function, and the possible association with airway disease caused by asbestos. METHODS--A cross sectional and longitudinal (seven year) survey of 494 long term (mean (SEM) 21(1) years) workers in a copper refinery was carried out from medical questionnaires, chest radiographs, and forced spirometry. RESULTS--The prevalence of lifetime non-smokers was 19%, current smokers 39%, and ex-smokers 42%. The prevalence of chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) (forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) < 80% predicted) was 5%, small airway dysfunction (SAD) (maximal mid-expiratory flow (MMEF) < 60% predicted) was 7%, and this did not differ from the control population. The COPD and SAD were associated with cumulative smoking index but not with the cumulative work years at the plant or with any type of work at the plant. The mean (SEM) reduction of FEV1 was 20(7) ml in non-smokers, 26(4) ml in smokers, and 26(5) ml in ex-smokers (P > 0.05). In the smokers and ex-smokers with COPD, the loss of FEV1 was 53(10) (P < 0.02). The prevalence of pleural plaques was 11% (P < 0.0001); pleural plaques were found in older workers with known exposure to asbestos. The pleural plaques were circumscribed and associated with a non-significant 196 ml reduction in forced vital capacity (FVC) and non-significant reduction of FVC over time. The pleural plaques were not associated with COPD or SAD. The cumulative smoking index obtained by a technician did not differ from that by a chest physician. CONCLUSIONS--Despite exposures to asbestos that produced pleural plaques and exposures to metal dusts and foundry fumes the long term workers of this plant did not have excessive prevalence of COPD or SAD. The data suggest that low level long term exposure to metal dusts, gases, and foundry fumes do not necessarily cause respiratory dysfunction, circumscribed pleural plaques with low grades of width and extent do not reduce FVC significantly, and exposure to asbestos dust that produced pleural plaques does not necessarily produce airway dysfunction.

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