As many of us learned in school, our lungs and respiratory tract are our body’s primary interface with the outside world. The quality of the air we breathe therefore has major implications for our health. Although approximately 25 percent of our time is spent in the workplace, studies have shown that the workplace environment is more likely to be the cause of exposure-related respiratory problems because, generally, air quality will be poorer at work than in a domestic environment.
Despite the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s requirement that employers comply with hazard-specific safety and health standards and to provide employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm, more than 1 million workers in the U.S. are estimated to be under the risk of exposure to respiratory irritants annually. In fact, occupational lung diseases are the primary cause of occupation-associated illness in the U.S. Handling chemicals, working in inadequately ventilated areas, or entering areas of exposure with improper or no protective equipment are generally the reasons for these lung-related occupational injuries.
Most occupational lung diseases are caused by repeated, long-term exposure, but sometimes a severe, single exposure to a hazardous agent can cause serious damage the lungs. Exposures to a high concentration of even mildly toxic substances can prove dangerous. In some cases, a high dose exposure for as little as a few minutes can lead to dangerous health conditions, like acute respiratory distress syndrome, also known as ARDS.
ARDS is a rapidly developing, life-threatening condition where the lungs are severely injured. In a person suffering from ARDS, swelling occurs throughout the lungs, tiny blood vessels in the lung tissue leak, and the air sacs collapse or fill with fluid. This leads to dangerously low blood oxygen levels or dangerously high carbon dioxide levels in the blood.
Although with medical care many people survive, about 40 percent of people with ARDS die from the syndrome – even with intensive medical treatment. Of the survivors, many experience temporary or permanent health problems. These problems may include shortness of breath, persistent cough, hoarseness, lack of energy, muscle weakness, loss of stamina, anxiety, depression, and problems with memory and thinking clearly.
ARDS can be caused by any major direct or indirect injury to the lung, including inhaling toxic chemicals in the workplace. Onset of the syndrome can occur suddenly or can develop over a period of 24 to 48 hours following exposure. The first signs and symptoms of ARDS are feeling like you can’t get enough air into your lungs, rapid breathing, and low oxygen levels in the blood.
In previous issues we have discussed the types of occupations in which severe lung injuries like ARDS are more commonly seen and many of the types of chemicals and agents that cause these lung diseases. However, certain chemicals are known to cause immediate lung injury, like ARDS. These include: chlorine, ammonia, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, nitrogen dioxide, phosgene, and ozone.
Lawyers in our firm are investigating cases where persons were exposed to harmful agents or chemicals in the workplace and, as a result, they developed a serious lung injury or disease, including ARDS. If you have any questions about this subject, contact Chris Boutwell or Ryan Kral, lawyers in our firm’s Toxic Torts Section, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Chris.Boutwell@beasleyallen.com or Ryan.Kral@beasleyallen.com.
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