Nurses and COPD
December 23, 2017
A recent medical study has determined that the use of disinfectants increases risks for developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in nurses who are routinely exposed in the workplace. COPD is a lung disease that makes it difficult to breath and can cause long term organ damage and result in death. Even though using disinfectants in medical settings is crucial for limiting deadly infections, it’s time for policy makers to decide the best ways to protect nurses from products that are commonly associated with serious medical issues.
Researchers at France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) as well as at Harvard University conducted the study. It is part of the Nurses’ Health Study II, which took thirty years to complete and is one of the most comprehensive inquiries on risk factors for chronic diseases in women. All in all, the investigation included more than 55,000 registered nurses.
The researchers found that nurses who use common disinfectants at least once a week – such as bleach, glutaraldehyde (used to clean medical tools), quaternary ammonium compounds or “quats”, alcohol and/or hydrogen peroxide – have a 22% higher chance of getting COPD. Depending on how often disinfectants are used, the overall risk can grow to anywhere between 24% and 32%.
Previous studies have indicated a link between disinfectants and the heightened risk for asthma, but this recent study is the first to analyze rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in relation to exposure to cleaning chemicals. This relationship is a crucial one to better understand, especially because the American Lung Association (ALA) reports that COPD is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Approximately 11 million individuals have been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but the ALA estimates that millions more may unknowingly have it.
Although the disease can be deadly, the symptoms that accompany COPD can range from mild to severe. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) reports that some of the most common symptoms of COPD are:
- An ongoing cough or wheeze that produces large amounts of mucus – AKA a “smoker’s cough” (whether or not you smoke);
- Chest tightness;
- Wheezing, whistling or squeaking sounds when you breathe, and:
- Shortness of breath that typically accompanies physical activity
One of the reasons that COPD can be deadly is because many people don’t know they have the disease until it’s progressed. Even though there is no known cure for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, there are preventive measures that individuals can take to limit the risk of deadly complications after being diagnosed in a timely manner. When COPD is caught in time, some effective forms of treatment for managing it are oxygen therapy, medication regimens and pulmonary rehabilitation.
Now that the data has been published, it’s time for legislators and policy makers to determine what steps need to be taken to protect nurses from these known occupational hazards. While bleach, glutaraldehyde, hydrogen peroxide, alcohol and bleach are all linked to the increased risk for COPD in nurses, the researchers found that surface cleaners (such as quaternary ammonium compounds or “quats”) can be especially hazardous.
In chemical plants, factories and manufacturing shops, employers provide workers with personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect them from chemical exposure. Workers are also instructed to wash any contaminated clothing, change their clothes or shower before leaving work and to follow instructions on how to safely use chemicals. When nurses disinfect surfaces, equipment and medical areas, they are doing it to keep their patients safe and free from infection, yet they are not adequately protected against developing a deadly disease that comes as a consequence of their dedication to the health and wellbeing of others.
Historically chronic obstructive pulmonary disease has been thought of as a “men’s disease”, but the truth is that women are much more susceptible to developing it. Due to estrogen levels and smaller lungs, women are more prone to lung changes and damage. Although rates of COPD are higher in women than they are in men, the ALA reports that many doctors still fail to accurately diagnose and treat it – and this is in large part due to stereotypes that surround the disease.
While everyone should know what the early warning signs of COPD are, nurses who use disinfectants should be particularly vigilant about watching out for red flags. Some typical early warning signs include:
- Shortness of breath that occurs while doing normal, daily activities (also known as dyspnea);
- Recurrent, frequent respiratory infections, and:
- Cyanosis – or blueness of the fingernail beds and/or lips;
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, it is important to make an appointment with a doctor; especially since the earlier a person gets treatment, the better their medical outcome may be. Individuals employed in the medical field who are concerned about being exposed to disinfectants should have a discussion with a supervisor about protection options, such as respiratory protective equipment.
Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at Galfand Berger, LLP Represent Victims of Unsafe Products
If you are a nurse who developed COPD and believes it may be the result of exposure to disinfects, call our Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation lawyers at Galfand Berger, LLP. With offices located in Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Lancaster, and Reading, we serve clients throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania. To schedule a consultation, call us at 800-222-8792 or complete our online contact form.