OBJECTIVES: To determine whether occupational exposure to chromite, trivalent chromium, or hexavalent chromium causes respiratory diseases, an excess of respiratory symptoms, a decrease in pulmonary function, or signs of pneumoconiosis among workers in an integrated chain of stainless steel production. METHODS: This cross sectional study was carried out in 1993 and the inclusion criterion was a minimum of eight years of employment in the same production department. A self administered questionnaire was collected, and spirometry, measurement of diffusing capacity, chest radiography, and laboratory tests were carried out by a mobile research unit. RESULTS: There were 221 workers in the exposure groups and 95 in the control group. The average duration of employment was 18 years. No significant differences in the odds ratios (ORs) of the symptoms were found between the exposure and the control groups. In a logistic regression analysis age and smoking significantly explained the occurrence of most of the respiratory symptoms. The smokers in the chromite group had significantly lower forced vital capacity (FVC), forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1), and diffusing capacity than the corresponding values of the control group. The analysis of variance between study groups, smoking, and exposure time, without modelling for interactions, showed that the chromite group had lower values for FVC, FEV1, and diffusing capacity than the other groups. The occurrence of small opacities was more frequent on the chest radiographs of the workers in the chromite group. CONCLUSIONS: An average exposure time of 18 years in ferrochromium and stainless steel production and exposure to dusts containing low concentrations of hexavalent or trivalent chromium do not lead to any respiratory changes detectable by lung function tests or radiography nor to any increase in symptoms of respiratory diseases. The lung function values were lower and the occurrence of radiological findings was more frequent among the workers from the chromite mine than among the controls. The difference was partly caused by differences in age and smoking habits, but evidently also partly by higher exposures more than two decades ago or by the fibrous components of the dust.
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