Workplace Chemical Hazards & Lung Disease

How are lungs affected by chemicals?

Inhalation is a major route of entry into the body. Breathing of contaminated air is the most common way that workplace chemicals enter the body. When you inhale contaminated air, it travels through the respiratory system into the lungs where it is distributed throughout the body by the blood stream. The average person takes 12 breathes a minute or intakes 6L of air a minute, including any contaminants.   

The respiratory system does a good job at filtering the air as it enters the nose and travels further into the respiratory system. On its journey to the lungs the passageways get smaller and thinner like branches of a tree. Eventually it hits the walls of the lungs where oxygen is transferred into the bloodstream and distributed throughout the body. Much smaller particles not visible lodge themselves into the walls of the lungs causing irritation which can cause an acute or immediate reaction like an allergic reaction. Other particles can cause permanent damage or scarring and eventually interfere with the lung's ability to pass oxygen into the blood stream.  

What are the types of occupational lung disease?

Occupational lung diseases cover a wide array of diagnoses that may be caused by the inhalation of dusts, chemicals, or proteins. This can include occupational asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Bronchiolitis Obliterans, Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis or Farmers Lung, lung fibrosis, inhalation injury, infections, Pneumoconiosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. 

Occupational lung diseases are one of the most frequent and serious of all occupation related diseases.

What Causes Occupational Lung Disease?

Most occupational lung diseases are caused by repeated, long-term exposure, but even a severe, single exposure to a hazardous substance can damage the lungs. Lung diseases can appear years later even after exposure stops. 

People involved in physical labour tend to exert themselves at a greater rate, breathe harder and take in more air over an 8-hour period than someone who is more sedentary.  So, they have greater exposure.  

What types of work activities can create lung hazards?

You should be concerned about contaminated air if you have work processes or activities that produce Gases and Vapours (including evaporation); Mists, cutting and grinding, paint spray; Dusts, fumes and smoke.  

What are Inhalation Contaminants?

Inhalation contaminants can be categorized into three categories: 

  1. Dust

    Fungus, Mold, Diesel Exhaust, Asbestos, Silica

  2. Chemicals

    Carbon Tetrachloride; 1,1 Dichloroethane; Carbon Monoxide; Soot; Arsenic Compounds; Nickle Compounds

  3. Proteins

    Latex rubber

Particulate matter in the air can cause lung problems and includes a combination of dust, pollens, molds, dirt, soil, ashes, and soot. It originates from many sources, such as factories, smokestacks, exhaust, fires, mining, construction, and agriculture. The finer the particles are, the more damage they can do to the lungs, because they are easily inhaled deep into the lungs, where they are absorbed into the body. 

Reading the Safety Data Sheet for the chemicals you work with and understanding the hazards you are working with is an important step in prevention. 

If a respirator has been recommended for any task at work, it is important to use it. Occupational lung diseases are preventable with controls like respirators.