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Study links workplace inhalants to rheumatoid arthritis


Researchers have discovered a link between exposures to workplace inhalants and rheumatoid arthritis and are calling on employers to better protect workers.

A study published in the “Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases” says workers exposed to fumes from gases, vapors and solvents are at a heightened risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, an auto-immune disease characterized by severe joint pain and inflammation.

The researchers behind the study also found exposure to such inhalants appeared to boost the risk in smokers and those with a genetic predisposition to the disease.

The findings, compiled by researchers with the Division of Rheumatology, Inflammation and Immunity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, showed fumes from materials such as asbestos, diesel fuel, gasoline and fungicide were associated with an increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

The researchers stressed the importance of occupational respiratory protections, especially for workers with a genetic predisposition to rheumatoid arthritis.

“Obviously, you can’t change your genetics,” said Dr. Jeffrey Sparks, one of the researchers. “Certainly, anything you can do to mitigate that risk by limiting exposure,” is beneficial.

Dr. Sparks said the findings show employers should take seriously the health threats posed by exposure to dangerous inhalants.

“The companies are going to have to figure out how to get the jobs done,” Dr. Sparks said. “The actual individual will have to think about their comfort and functionality. If there’s a cleaner way to do the job, that would also be helpful.”

The study, which involved 4,033 people of various ages, looked at the general population. The data was not limited to specific types of jobs or industries, but researchers measured a total of 47 unique exposures, Dr. Sparks said.

The immediate impact on workers compensation cases is not clear, but Alan Gurvey, a Sherman Oaks, California-based workers comp applicants attorney with Rowen, Gurvey & Win said legal precedent permits workers comp claims in cases in which medical research ties a workplace inhalant to a resulting condition.

“Because the workers compensation appeals boards look at medical research that will substantiate and justify the claim with respect to the condition that has been claimed, it becomes pretty straightforward that any evidence that comes out will certainly be compelling,” Mr. Gurvey said.

Mr. Gurvey said he has worked cases involving scant evidence connecting workplace inhalant exposure and a resulting diagnosis, and judges still ruled in workers’ favor.

Mr. Gurvey cited a win in a case in which a client died from colon cancer that was believed to be tied to radiation exposure from his 27-year career in cable repair.

“It was a big victory to know that we had shown enough without strong research tying the two together,” Mr. Gurvey said.

Jenifer Kaufman, an Abington, Pennsylvania-based attorney cautioned that the study’s findings are preliminary.

“This is certainly an interesting and novel study,” Ms. Kaufman, who runs Kaufman Workers’ Compensation Law, wrote in an email. “I have handled plenty of occupational disease claims for breathing issues caused by inhalants/irritants at work.”

She said the research “is limited by its reliance on self-reporting of exposures and does not control for smoking.”

“I don’t think this is a game-changer for workers comp practitioners now, but if further and more scientific studies are completed it could be down the line,” she said.