"The lungs are complex organs," says Philip Harber, MD, MPH, professor of public health at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "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. Depending on your line of work, making certain changes can be key: Improve ventilation, wear protective equipment, change the way you do your work, and learn more about hazards, for examples.
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. She's 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 linked with developing asthma.
"Cleaners are reactive chemicals, meaning that they react with dirt and also with your lung tissues," 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. Open windows and doors to keep the area well ventilated, too.
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).
4. Hair Styling
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.
Some factory workers risk getting asthma or making their existing asthma worse. Asthma not caused by work but made worse by it affects as many as 25% of adults with asthma, Harber says.
Factory workers can be exposed to everything from inhaled metals in foundries to silica or fine sand, which can lead to silicosis, a disease that scars the lung, or increased risk of lung cancer.
A lung disorder called "popcorn lung," or bronchiolitis obliterans, has been seen in plant workers exposed to some of the flavoring chemicals used to make microwave popcorn. Again, respirators and proper ventilation are key for those workers. (No risk of "popcorn lung" has been seen in people who eat that popcorn.)
Exposure also seems to raise the risk of small-cell lung cancer and can lead to asbestosis, or scarring of the lung. Removal should be left to trained and licensed crews.
"Know where the asbestos is," Von Essen says. "Follow all the rules and don't take chances."
Working with crops and animals can lead to several disorders. Hypersensitivity pneumonitis is a rare but serious problem caused by repeated exposures to mold-contaminated grain or hay. The lung's air sacs become inflamed and may develop scar tissue.
Grain in metal bins can get moldy. Breathing dust from this grain can lead to fevers, chills, and a flu-like illness called "organic dust toxic syndrome." Farmers also are more likely to report a cough and chest tightness.
"We think about 30% of farmers who grow crops in this way have had that at some point," Von Essen says. Workers in hog and chicken barns sometimes get an asthma-like syndrome.
"Dust and ammonia levels together seem to be risk factors," she says. Keep grain from getting damp, ensure adequate ventilation, and wear a respirator.
8. Auto Body Spray Painting
People who work in auto body shops are often exposed to chemicals known as isocyanates. They're a significant cause of occupational asthma.
"It's frequently a career-ending disease where they need to leave their profession," Harber says.
Using quality respirators that are appropriate for your task can lessen the risk. It also helps to enclose the area being sprayed and to have a ventilated exhaust system. Better yet, replace hazardous materials with safer ones.
People who battle blazes are exposed not only to the fire, but also to other materials, including burning plastics and chemicals. Firefighters can significantly lower their risk of lung disease and other problems by using a "self-contained breathing apparatus" (SCBA). These devices should also be used during "mop up" or the clean-up period.
"Many of the chemicals are still in the air," Harber says. Ventilation also is critical.
10. Coal Mining
Underground miners are at risk for everything from bronchitis to pneumoconiosis, or "black lung." It's a chronic condition caused by inhaling coal dust that becomes embedded in the lungs, causing them to harden and make breathing very hard.
"This can cause progressive massive fibrosis and can kill people," Von Essen says.
Again, protective equipment can limit the amount of dust inhaled.