Asthma and other lung diseases

Occupational lung disease

Much of IOMs research has been concerned with understanding the relationships between workplace exposures and lung diseases. Our original programme of research was in the British coal industry, investigating how much dust could be inhaled without harming the miner’s lungs, particularly causing coal workers pneumoconiosis or ‘black lung’. The research has been used to set the standards in coal mines around the world. Since then we have also investigated cancers caused by exposure to asbestos, asthma from inhaling opiates and most recently the potential of nanoparticles to cause lung disease. We continue to investigate a wide range of dust and chemical exposures in relation to the risk of lung disease.

We have particular skills in measuring or modelling occupational exposures and linking these to the risk of lung disease in epidemiological studies. In a collaboration with scientists from the USA and Europe, we studied the risks for workers manufacturing ‘hard metal’, which is composed of tungsten carbide along with cobalt or nickel. This study, which involved over 30,000 workers from 17 manufacturing sites and found no evidence these exposures increased the risk of death from lung cancer or any other disease.

Our studies have included investigation of exposure to isocyanates, the main cause of occupational asthma in the UK. Our research showed that in some industry sectors the respirators being used to protect workers were ineffective in controlling exposure or that absorption of the isocyanate was entering the body through the skin rather than by inhalation. This work suggested better controls were needed to reduce the risk for workers.

The main sponsors for our research on lung disease have included large industries, the European Commission, UK and other national government agencies.