Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a pulmonary disease that makes it hard to breathe. It is progressive meaning that it gets worse over time. It can cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness, and other symptoms. COPD denotes two main conditions, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. In emphysema, the walls between many of the air sacs in the lungs become damaged, and as a result, the air sacs lose their shape and become floppy. In chronic bronchitis, the lining of the airways is constantly irritated and inflamed. This results in thick mucus in the airways, making it difficult to breathe. Most people who have been diagnosed with COPD have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
COPD is a major cause of disability. It’s also the third leading cause of death in the United States. The symptoms of COPD often worsen over time and can limit one’s ability to do routine activities. Severe cases of COPD may prevent a person from performing even basic activities.
While cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD, exposure to other lung irritants may cause or contribute to COPD. One of those known irritants is diesel exhaust fumes. The railroads converted from using steam locomotives to diesel powered locomotives after World War II. By 1959, 95% of locomotives were powered by diesel fuel. Today a vast majority of the locomotives being operated by US Railroads are powered by diesel. Health magazine recently indicated that railroading was one of the 10 worst jobs for your lungs.
In 2006, a study was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives that indicated that Railroaders exposed to diesel exhaust are at an increased risk for developing COPD. The study’s findings were summarized as follows: “In this case-control study of railroad workers, work in jobs with exposure to diesel exhaust was associated with increased mortality from COPD. These elevations persist after controlling for smoking and increased with increasing years of work in exposed jobs.” The study determined that the risk was highest for those railroaders who worked on operating trains – engineers and conductors. The study can be found here.
By Matt Darby