Disclosures: Lacy reports being a consultant for AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline and is a member of an advisory panel for AstraZeneca. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.
December 10, 2020
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COPD, recurrent chest infections linked with occupational exposure to insulating materials

Disclosures: Lacy reports being a consultant for AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline and is a member of an advisory panel for AstraZeneca. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.
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Occupational exposure to insulating materials used in construction was associated with respiratory illnesses such as COPD and recurrent chest infections, according to new research.

“Workers who handle hazardous insulation materials, such as asbestos and various synthetic vitreous fibers, are much more likely to suffer from repeated chest infections and COPD,” Paige Lacy, PhD, from the department of medicine at Alberta Respiratory Centre at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, told Healio. “Although asbestos was banned in Canada as late as 2018, many buildings and pipelines still contain asbestos. Demolition and replacement of these insulation materials carries a high risk of continued exposure to hazardous materials.”

Lung image
Source: Adobe Stock.

The cross-sectional study included 990 construction workers who work with insulating materials (insulators) who were screened from 2011 to 2017 in Alberta and had pulmonary function tests and chest radiography.. Eighty-eight percent were men, the mean age was 45 years and 34% were never smokers.

Fifty-five percent of insulators reported exposure to asbestos, 40% to aerogels, 89% to calcium silicate, 60% to carbon, 86% to fiberglass, 96% to mineral fiber and 64% to refractory ceramic fiber.

Paige Lacy
Paige Lacy

In the previous 3 years, 46% of participants reported having one or more chest infection and 16% were diagnosed with COPD. Exposure to asbestos, calcium silicate, carbon fibers, fiberglass and refractory ceramic fibers were associated with development of recurrent chest infections (prevalence ratio range = 1.18-1.42) in multivariate models, according to the results. Only asbestos exposure was associated with development of COPD (PR = 1.44; 95% CI, 1.01-2.05).

Exposure to aerogels and mineral fibers was not strongly associated with the development of any respiratory illnesses, the researchers wrote.

“Based on our findings, exposure to most of the hazardous insulation materials will likely result in increased incidence of recurrent chest infections and, in the long term, COPD,” Lacy said. “The detrimental health effects of asbestos exposure will be observed for several more decades into the future because of the persistence of asbestos and other hazardous materials in construction.”

According to Lacy, as this was a cross-sectional study, the researchers were unable to determine the incidence of recurrent chest infections and COPD. More research is required to evaluate the causal relationship between individual insulation material exposures and respiratory illness development, the researchers concluded.

“Future longitudinal studies, in which insulators are regularly assessed in an appropriately equipped pulmonary clinic containing full-body plethysmography equipment, are required to determine whether exposure to insulation materials may be a causal factor in recurrent chest infections or COPD,” Lacy said.

For more information:

Paige Lacy, PhD, can be reached at placy@ualberta.ca.