Dear COPD Coach,
I was just diagnosed with COPD. Upon reading about it, my mother has had asthma, bronchitis often and very early emphysema. She is 94- I am 67. I never had any lung issues, although both of my parents smoked 24-7 in our home and car until I left home at 18. I never directly smoked. But I was thinking–I am a craft artist and have working with epoxy glue that I need to mix for the past 15 yrs. There is an odor, though I don’t really notice it anymore. Could this exposure have caused COPD? Should I stop? I would HATE to!
–New to COPD
While smoking and secondhand smoke is the number one preventable cause for COPD, other factors can indeed lead to development of COPD. However, long term exposure to lung irritants can damage your lungs and airways. Irritants include chemical fumes, air pollution and dust to name a few. We have heard of several people developing COPD after working in garment factories, coal mines and paint shops. Many workers at the aftermath of 911 are now experiencing COPD symptoms.
There is also the question whether COPD is genetic. We know of one genetic form called Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency. This condition occurs as a result of a defective gene passed on from both parents (one parent passing on this gene could result in the child becoming a carrier of the condition). Alpha-1 is characterized by having low levels of antitrypsin (ATT) which is made in the liver. Having low levels of the ATT protein can lead to lung damage and COPD. Most generally speaking, when you have a history of lung and liver disease in your family, it is encouraged to test for Alpha-1. To get more information on Alpha-1 testing call the C.O.P.D. Information Line at 866-316-COPD.
Researchers suspect that there are several more genetic links which have yet to be discovered. We do know that the susceptibility of developing COPD occurs in families. Even if you do not have Alpha-1, there may be some other genetic trait that leads to development of COPD. Because of your family history, it is extremely important to protect your lungs. Furhermore, you should have these discussions with other members of your family. If anyone smokes, you should encourage them to quit as they may be more susceptible to the effects of tobacco smoking.
Although it is not usually the case, some people who have asthma can develop COPD. The main difference between asthma and COPD is that asthma is reversible (not curable, but temporarily reversible) with medication while COPD is not.
With all that said, there really is not apparent answer to what caused your COPD. It may well have been the cumulative result of many different factors. Certainly your early exposure to secondhand smoke could well have contributed, and certainly chemicals used in your craft work could also be a contributor. With your mother experiencing bronchitis (chronic bronchitis is a form of COPD) and early emphysema, Alpha-1 should also be considered!
Maybe the question should not be what caused your COPD, but instead be “what do I do now?” The first thing I would suggest is the test for Alpha-1. It is a simple test that can be done at home. There is a treatment for Alpha-1 that can in many cases slow down the process of the disease.
The next thing is to begin taking extraordinary good care of your health. Seek the services of a pulmonary professional (if you haven’t already), eat a balanced diet, take your medications as prescribed, watch for signs of an exacerbation (times when your COPD gets worse) and get treated early. Pulmonary rehabilitation can be very beneficial and allow you to have greater mobility without getting out of breath as quickly. Lastly, Get educated. The more you know, the better you will be able to understand your condition, determine when there might be a problem and help you adjust your lifestyle. A good source of information is our Big Fat Reference Guide.
As far as your craft work, if the fumes are indeed strong, and you are experiencing breathing difficulties after using the materials you mention, it might be better to seek alternative materials that might be less toxic. At the very least, I would certainly recommend using a special respirator or mask as most masks only filter out particles. They do not protect you against gases, fumes, chemicals or vapors. Certainly, you should only use the materials outside the home in a well venerated area. Please refer to the BFRG Section A3-12 and Appendix AA-19.
Hope this information helps!
–The COPD Coach
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