(Reuters Health)—Breathing textile dust on the job is linked to an almost tripled risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a Malaysian study suggests.
While smoking is a known risk factor for RA, the findings add to evidence suggesting that environmental factors could trigger RA in some people, the researchers note in their report in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, online Jan. 14.
The investigators suspect that textile dust might cause changes in the lung tissues, and those changes might trigger the immune response that leads to RA in individuals with genetic risk factors for the disease, said senior study author Dr. Camilla Bengtsson of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.
Although more research is needed to prove whether textile dust directly causes RA, the findings suggest factory workers might benefit from respiratory protections that prevent or minimize inhalation of this pollutant, Bengtsson added by email.
“Public health initiatives could decrease the burden in many parts of the world, in particular the developing countries where the textile industry is common,” Bengtsson said.
Bengtsson and colleagues analyzed data on 910 women with RA and another 910 similar women of the same age who didn’t have the disease.
They limited the analysis to women because in Malaysia, like much of the developing world, most textile industry workers are female. Women in the study were also much less likely to smoke than their male counterparts, limiting their exposure to one of the main known causes of RA.
Among the women with RA, 41 of them (4.5%) had been exposed to textile dust at work. Among women without the disease, only 15 (1.7%) had been exposed to this dust.
Women who inhaled the dust were 2.8 times more likely to develop RA than women who didn’t.
Roughly 40% of the women with RA carried a genetic risk factor called HLA-DRB1 SE that boosts the odds of developing the disease.
Among women with this genetic risk for RA, those who were exposed to textile dust were 39 times more likely to test positive for ACPA antibodies that can speed the progression of the disease, the study also found.
Limitations of the study include the lack of data on other potential toxins women might breathe that could contribute to RA, the authors note. They also didn’t know whether women had factory jobs or worked from home, which might influence the toxins in the air they breathed.
It’s possible that some other factor related to work in the textile industry, and not dust, might be driving the increased risk of RA, noted Jill Norris, an epidemiologist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora who wasn’t involved in the study.