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November 30, 2016 • Pulmonology
For those in the field of pulmonology, or the study and treatment of diseases affecting the lungs, the state of our environment is a constant consideration. Lung health is impacted by a variety of factors, both controllable and uncontrollable. One of the most important factors is the role toxins play in causing often-serious complications.
In some cases, these kinds of toxins are a frequent concern located in a common area like a home or workplace. In others, even a single exposure or ingestion of a particular substance could lead to major issues. Let’s take a look at some basic examples of common toxins in the environment and how to stay on top of (or away from) them.
Simply put, no single other preventable factor causes more deaths in the United States every year than cigarettes – nearly 450,000. Many chemicals contained in the standard cigarette are known causes of lung cancer (or other forms of cancer), and their addictive properties only make this a more slippery slope. Even those who don’t willingly choose to put these toxins in their bodies can be at serious risk. Secondhand smoke, also referred to as Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) by some experts, is estimated to cause over 40,000 deaths each year on its own.
Other common forms of voluntary smoke inhalation have inherent lung health risks attached. Marijuana may differ from cigarettes in some ways, but it also contains many of the same harmful substances. Chewing tobacco and cigars are alternative forms of tobacco intake, but both have their own specific links to cancer. Electronic cigarettes (or “vape pens”) are becoming a more and more popular alternative, and while research is still being conducted here, it’s a safe bet that any form of tobacco smoke entering the lungs could have negative consequences.
One of the most well-known environmental toxins out there, asbestos is a substance sometimes found in the insulating material of older buildings, particularly many old industrial workplaces. It’s linked to several forms of cancer, including lung cancer, and risk develops over time as people are continuously exposed to asbestos. In many cases, symptoms of asbestos exposure don’t begin to manifest themselves until decades after initial contact.
Worse yet, asbestos toxins have an exponential health risk to the lungs of those who also ingest cigarette smoke. This is called a “synergistic interaction” – both asbestos and cigarettes are bad on their own, but the effect when they combine is even greater than their expected sum. Smokers who are also exposed to asbestos carry a risk of lung disease that’s eight times higher than smokers who were never exposed, and males who both smoke and are exposed to asbestos are at 50 times the risk of those who carry neither pre-existing factor.
Modern understanding of the risks of asbestos have led to more careful procedures, but risks still exist. When moving into a new location or beginning a new job, especially in or near any form of factory or industrial setting, be sure to confirm that buildings near you have been checked for asbestos levels.
Drinking isn’t often associated with risk of lung disease, but studies have found a correlation between alcohol and nicotine dependency. In fact, studies indicate that the two substances contribute to raising the other’s dependency levels within the body. Additionally, a history with alcohol could increase a person’s risk of falling victim to other cigarette-related carcinogens.
Asbestos is easily the most famous workplace-related chemical, but several others exist and can cause lung complications. Some scientists suppose that roughly five percent of lung cancers in women and roughly 15 percent of lung cancers in men are caused by some form of workplace exposure, though these figures are disputed. A few of the most common toxins present in the workplace include:
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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.