Road Hazard: Truckers at Increased Risk for Lung Diseases
August 1, 2012
By John W. Walsh, Co-founder and President of the COPD Foundation
Truckers face many obstacles on the road, including those related to lifestyle, such as obesity, high cholesterol, high-blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an umbrella term for emphysema, chronic bronchitis, irreversible asthma and severe bronchiectasis, is a growing concern for many Americans – and truckers in particular are at risk of developing this debilitating, but little known, disease.
COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States, taking a life every four minutes. While cigarette smoking is the major risk factor for COPD, recent studies indicate that about 15 percent of COPD cases are work-related. Long-term exposure to air pollution creates the continuous irritation and damage that causes COPD, making truck drivers especially vulnerable.
Like coal miners, hard-rock miners and tunnel workers, truck drivers have been shown to be at a higher risk for developing COPD compared to other occupations. In fact, according to a number of studies, diesel exhaust increases the risk of developing the disease by 2.5 percent. Furthermore, a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health found that working as a long-haul truck driver is associated with a higher likelihood of smoking.
• An ongoing cough or a cough that produces large amounts of mucus (often called “smoker’s cough”)
• Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity
• Wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe)
• Chest tightness
Symptoms can occur years before the flow of air into and out of the lungs worsens. People who have COPD often experience episodes of acute exacerbations, mostly caused by bacterial infections. These episodes negatively impact your quality of life and bring a significant social and economic cost. Therefore, it’s important to do what you can to minimize exposure to lung irritants and protect your health:
• Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke — Truckers who smoke on top of being exposed to diesel and other workplace irritants have twice the risk of chronic lung problems compared with coworkers who do not smoke. Sit in non-smoking sections of public places and request smoke-free hotel rooms.
• Get an annual breathing test – Ask your physician about a breathing test called spirometry to find out if your lung function is changing, and discuss your concerns about exposure to diesel fumes so that you can work together to monitor your lungs closely.
By knowing the risks that can increase your chances of COPD, you can take steps to reduce your exposure and keep your lungs healthy for a long time to come. The good news is that engines now emit less diesel exhaust due to improvements, and use cleaner-burning diesel fuel. But diesel exhaust is still widespread, so it’s important to stay out of the direct line of diesel exhaust and wear respirators whenever possible to help reduce the risk of lung disease.
About the Author
John W. Walsh, who was diagnosed with Alpha-1-related genetic COPD in 1989, is the Co-Founder and President of the COPD Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to developing and supporting programs, which improve the quality of life through research, education, early diagnosis and enhanced therapy for persons whose lives are impacted by Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). He is also the Co-Founder of the Alpha-1 Foundation (a research organization) and AlphaNet, Inc. (a unique, not-for-profit disease management services company run by and for patients). He can be reached at email@example.com.