The research, by experts at the University and Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, is published in the European Respiratory Journal. It suggests that hundreds of people in North East England who used to work in heavy industry are suffering from COPD.
Over 7,500 randomly selected people from the North East aged 45 to 69 years responded to a survey sent out by health professionals. Over half of responders suffered from some form of chronic respiratory symptoms such as a cough, wheeze or shortness of breath, which can all be signs of COPD. Of the 845 people who responded to the survey and attended for simple breathing tests 11 per cent were found to be suffering from COPD.
Overall, those with a history of occupational exposures were approximately 50 per cent more likely to report respiratory symptoms compared to those who had not had not been exposed. People working in industrial fields suffered about a fifth more COPD.
Experts say the number of sufferers is likely to be far higher than is currently recognised. It has been known for some time that some coal miners have developed COPD as a result of their exposure to coal dust, but much less is known about the effects of other occupational exposures. This study looked specifically at factory workers, ship building, welders, coal miners and those who have been exposed to asbestos, paint or other dust and fumes.
It is estimated that COPD will be the third highest killer worldwide by 2020.
Dr Alice Melville, who led the study, said: “We began this study because we wanted to see if there was a link between working in heavy industry and developing COPD. This is an area of illness that has been under investigated. We already knew that coal mining was a factor but were particularly interested in the effects of other industrial activity.
“Smoking is a factor but it doesn’t explain the full extent of the problem we uncovered. Our figures show a link between working in an industrial setting and developing COPD.
“We know that COPD is under reported and there are far more cases out there than we know about. Anyone who has persistent respiratory symptoms, whether or not they have worked in these industries, should go and see their GP to have some simple tests to see if they have COPD or another respiratory condition. The symptoms can be helped with simple treatments.”