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10 Risky Jobs for Your Lungs

These jobs may have lung risks for some workers.
By Pamela Babcock
WebMD Feature

Your lungs work hard -- most adults take more than 20,000 breaths a day. But just how well your lungs do their job may be affected by the job you do.

Chemicals. Germs. Tobacco smoke and dirt. Fibers, dust, and even things you might not think are dangerous can damage your airway and threaten your lungs.

"The lungs are complex organs," Philip Harber, MD, MPH, professor of public health at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona in Tucson, tells WebMD. "Occupational and environmental exposures can lead to scarring or fibrosis, asthma, COPD, and infection or cancer."

The good news: Many on-the-job lung dangers are preventable. Improving ventilation, wearing protective equipment, changing the way you do your work and learning more about hazards is key.

Here are 10 jobs where precautions may help you avoid work-related lung damage.

1. Bartending and Waitressing.

Secondhand smoke has been linked to lung cancer. It remains a threat to workers in cities where smoking hasn't been banned in public places. Casino workers also can find themselves in a cloud of smoke.

No one's going to wear a respirator while serving martinis or dealing a blackjack game. Separating smokers from nonsmokers, cleaning the air, and ventilating buildings won't keep nonsmokers from being exposed.

Short of working to change policy, the best solution may be to find another job. "Unfortunately, the individual worker has limited options," says Susanna Von Essen, MD, a University of Nebraska Medical Center professor of internal medicine in the division of pulmonary, critical care, sleep, and allergy.

2. Housekeeping and Cleaning.

Some cleaning supplies, even so-called "green" or "natural" products, have harmful chemicals that have been associated with developing asthma.

"Cleaners are reactive chemicals, meaning that they react with dirt and also with your lung tissues, so this is in some ways not surprising," Von Essen says.

Some release volatile organic compounds, which can contribute to chronic respiratory problems and allergic reactions. Read labels and follow instructions.

Consider using "simple cleaning agents like vinegar and water or baking soda," Von Essen says. And open windows and doors to keep the area well ventilated.

3. Health Care.

Doctors, nurses, and other people who work in hospitals, medical offices, or nursing homes are at increased risk for lung diseases such as tuberculosis, influenza, and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

So health care workers should keep up with immunizations, including the flu vaccine, that the CDC recommends for health care workers.

Health care workers also develop asthma if latex is used in gloves or other supplies. Latex-free synthetic gloves are an alternative.

4. Hair Styling.

Certain hair-coloring agents can produce occupational asthma. Some salon hair-straightening products contain formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen. It's also a strong eye, nose, throat, and lung irritant.

Good ventilation is important. Because wearing a respirator might cause appointments to cancel, know what's in the products you're working with. If they're not safe, find a safer product.

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