Why female artists and scientists are at risk of obstructive lung disease


By Michael Woodhead

7 May 2019

Women exposed to aromatic solvents while working as painters, sculptors or lab technicians are at high risk of lung function decline and obstructive airways disease, Australian research shows.

Men are also at risk of lung function decline through occupational exposure to aromatic solvents in painting, electrical, mining and construction trades, according to novel findings from the Tasmanian Longitudinal Health Study (TAHS).

The population-based longitudinal study included 767 people who underwent lung function testing at the ages of 45 and 50.

Based on their lifetime work history records, exposure to aromatic solvents was found to be associated with a 15.5 mL/year greater decline in FEV1 and 14.1 mL/year  greater decline in FVC compared to people who had no occupational exposure to solvents.

The analysis, conducted by  researchers at Melbourne University’s School of Population and Global Health also found that cumulative exposure to aromatic solvents was also associated with greater decline in FEV1 and FVC.  Importantly, women were significantly more susceptible than men to cumulative exposure to solvents.

Despite women having lower cumulative exposure to aromatic solvents compared with men, they showed a greater decline in FEV1 and FEV1/FVC ratio for a given increase in exposure. The study authors said the gender difference in lung function susceptibility to aromatic solvents might be due to different patterns of occupational exposure.

Women in the study exposed to aromatic solvents tended to be sculptors/painters/artists, woodworkers and life science technicians, while men were mostly painters, carpenters, plumbers, pipe fitters and firefighters.

The higher susceptibility might also be due to potential influences of female sex hormones, they suggested. Toxins in the airways are metabolised via the cytochrome P450 pathway, which can be upregulated by oestrogen.

“The role of these enzymes in the toxin metabolism pathway leads to increased oxidation of inhaled substances leading to increased oxidative stress in the airways and greater risk of airflow obstruction in women,” the study authors wrote in Thorax.

They said the study appeared to be the first to provide robust evidence that exposure to aromatic solvents is associated with greater decline in lung function in the general population

“Our findings suggest that the effect of aromatic solvents is not due to greater exposure in women, but due to greater susceptibility. This greater lung function decline in women may subsequently increase the risk of obstructive airway disease in future,” they concluded.

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