Detecting and preventing workplace lung disease

NORTH PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Every job has its risks, but when those risks start endangering a worker's health, it's time for expert advice.

In this week's Moves in Medicine, we get insight on how an occupational health specialist can help in treatment - and prevention.

Between a stint in the Navy and 34 years in construction, William Bergmann of Pennsville, N.J., has been around his share of dust.

Last fall, he developed a lung infection.

But when it was gone, William's breathing problems remained.

"Shortness of breath is the main concern, tightness of breath, I guess," William told us.

Because of his work history, his doctor sent him to Dr. Erin Narewski, an occupational lung specialist at Temple Health.

She says the lungs are amazing air cleaners, but they have their limits.

"Every particle that gets into your lungs stays there and doesn't go away. Your body can't rid itself of silica and asbestos and coal mine dust," says Dr. Narewski.

She says the most important factors are what you're exposed to, how long the exposure is, and how your body reacts to it.

Employers are required to inform anyone exposed to a dangerous substance on the job, and to provide personal protective gear.

The fit of that gear should also be tested every year.

Dr. Narewski says doctors can work with employers to make recommendations on limiting a worker's exposure.

Workers should take note when they have problems.

"If you're experiencing breathlessness symptoms that are worse when you're at work, and they get better when you come home," she says

And don't delay seeking help. Breathing trouble affects the whole body.

"There's problems in my lungs that are making it harder for my lungs to expand and contract, which is making my heart work harder," says William.

Because his damaged lungs aren't handling air well, Bergman will need oxygen, at least while he and Dr. Narewski develop long-term plans.

"It's a little scary. It's going to limit my lifestyle, I think quite a bit, and I wasn't really ready for that," he says.

Dr. Narewski says the misconception is that if you don't work in mining, manufacturing, or construction, your lungs aren't as much at risk.

But she says trouble can happen almost anywhere.
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