Retention of Asbestos Bodies in the Lungs of Welders

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Abstract

Examination of asbestos bodies (AB) retained in the lungs is a useful way of assessing past occupational exposure to this material. AB retention has been extensively studied in workers directly exposed to asbestos, but less so in those end users, such as welders, who use asbestos-containing products. We therefore retrospectively studied AB retention in 211 welders, for whom biological testing procedures had been requested by a chest physician, between 1988 and 1991. Optical microscopy of AB was performed on samples of sputum (40 subjects), bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BAL) (147 subjects), and lung tissue obtained after thoracotomy (38 subjects). Information on previous jobs and exposure was obtained using a questionnaire (the mean duration of welding activities was 16.6 years). Eighty-two subjects (38.9%) had elevated lung retention of AB in all the samples studied. Significant AB retention occurred in only 30% of sputum samples, but in 40.1% of BAL samples and 39.5% of lung tissue samples. The duration of welding activities correlated with the density of AB in BAL or lung tissue (r = 0.31, p < 0.01 and r = 0.49, p < 0.05, respectively). On the basis of the questionnaire, only two of the welders with significant AB retention had other occupational exposure to asbestos. Our findings suggest that welding activities may increase lung retention of AB, and consequently might produce higher risks of fibrotic and/or malignant pulmonary diseases. These potential risks need to be brought to the attention of doctors; a longitudinal follow-up may also be warranted in such populations, even after individuals have ceased their welding jobs.

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