OBJECTIVES: A cross sectional study was undertaken to assess lung health among plumbers and pipefitters. Respiratory symptoms, lung function, and radiographic changes among 99 actively employed plumbers and pipefitters with > or = 20 years of union membership were compared with 100 telephone workers. METHODS: A respiratory symptom questionnaire was administered, including smoking and occupational histories. Spirometry was conducted according to standard criteria. Posteroanterior chest radiographs were evaluated by two experienced chest physicians, with a third arbitrating disagreed films. Members of the union were categorised as pipefitters (n = 57), plumbers (n = 16), or welders (n = 26), based on longest service, and compared with the telephone workers and internally (between groups). Lung health was also compared with employment in several work sectors common to Alberta for time, and for time weighted by exposure to dust and fumes. RESULTS: Compared with the telephone workers, plumbers and pipefitters had more cough and phlegm, lower forced vital capacity, and more radiographic changes (20% with any change), including circumscribed (10%) and diffuse pleural thickening (9%). None of the plumbers and pipefitters had small radiographic opacities. Among the three subgroups of workers, plumbers had the highest prevalence of radiographic changes. Both plumbers and pipefitters showed higher odds ratios for cough and phlegm than the welders. No differences between groups were found for lung function. Indicators of lung health were not related to work in any sector. CONCLUSIONS: Plumbers and pipefitters had increased prevalence of symptoms suggestive of an irritant effect with no evidence of bronchial responsiveness. The chest radiographs showed evidence of asbestos exposure, especially in the plumbers, but at lower levels than previously reported. Health screening programmes for these workers should be considered, although the logistical problems associated with screening in this group would be considerable.
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