Rough Road: Truckers Face Higher Risk for Developing Lung Diseases
By John W. Walsh, Co-founder and President of the COPD Foundation
Truckers play a tremendously important role in the US economy. For years, attention has been paid to the road hazards and stresses accompanying their work. More recently, lifestyle behaviors that could contribute to life-threatening conditions have been recognized. These include smoking, obesity, high cholesterol, high-blood pressure, sleep disorders and type 2 diabetes. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a term that encompasses emphysema, chronic bronchitis, irreversible asthma and severe bronchiectasis, is the latest health concern truckers should know about.
COPD is the third leading cause of death in the US, taking a life every four minutes. While cigarette smoking is the major risk factor for COPD, recent studies show that about 15 percent of COPD cases are work-related. Truckers should know that long-term exposure to air pollution creates the continuous irritation and damage that causes COPD.
Like other jobs involving exposure to dust and pollution, truck drivers have been shown to be at a higher risk for developing COPD compared to other occupations. In fact, according to a number of studies, diesel exhaust increases the risk of developing the disease by 2.5 percent. Furthermore, a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health found that working as a long-haul truck driver is associated with a higher likelihood of smoking.
Symptoms of COPD include:
• Ongoing cough or a cough that produces large amounts of mucus (often called "smoker's cough")
•Shortness of breath, especially with physical activity
•Wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe)
• Chest tightness
Symptoms can occur years before the flow of air into and out of the lungs worsens. Individuals with COPD often experience episodes of acute exacerbations, mostly caused by bacterial infections. These episodes negatively impact quality of life and bring a significant social and economic cost. For these reasons, it’s important for truckers to do what they can to minimize exposure to lung irritants and protect their health:
•Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke -- Truckers who smoke on top of being exposed to diesel and other workplace irritants have twice the risk of chronic lung problems compared with coworkers who do not smoke. They should sit in non-smoking sections of public places and request smoke-free hotel rooms.
• Get an annual breathing test – Physician can administer a breathing test called spirometry to find out if lung function is changing, and discuss any concerns about exposure to diesel fumes and ways to mitigate further damage to the lungs. November is COPD Awareness Month – a perfect time to get tested.
By knowing the risks that can increase the chances of COPD, individuals can take steps to reduce their exposure and maintain lung health for a long time to come. The good news for truckers is that engines now emit less diesel exhaust due to improvements, and use cleaner-burning diesel fuel. But diesel exhaust is still widespread, so it’s important for truckers to stay out of the direct line of diesel exhaust and wear respirators whenever possible to help reduce the risk of lung disease.
Need help kicking the habit?
Consider following these tips on the road to better health:
• Explore the use of nicotine replacement therapy, adjunct medications, support groups and educational materials.
• Enlist the help of someone who has been successful at quitting.
•Ask your doctor for help in quitting.
• Tell your family and friends about your efforts, so that they can keep temptations away and support you in your goal.
•Exercise every day to help decrease cravings, improve your mood and give you a sense of well-being.
•Eat a balanced diet and avoid junk food.
• Drink plenty of water to flush the toxins out of your body.
About the Author
John W. Walsh, who was diagnosed with Alpha-1-related genetic COPD in 1989, is the Co-Founder and President of the COPD Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to developing and supporting programs, which improve the quality of life through research, education, early diagnosis and enhanced therapy for persons whose lives are impacted by Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). He is also the Co-Founder of the Alpha-1 Foundation (a research organization) and AlphaNet, Inc. (a unique, not-for-profit disease management services company run by and for patients). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.