Scientists pinpoint cause of mysterious machine workers’ disease

By Ann Griswold • Published: September 17th, 2009
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Blue collar workers are exposed to a lot of hazards on the job, but one condition in particular – known as machine worker’s lung – has had researchers scratching their heads for decades. Now, new research paves the way for a possible treatment for this mysterious disease.

About one million machinists work in the United States. On a daily basis, they cut, weld, measure and inspect a variety of metal parts for automobiles and other industrial equipment. Daily exposure to toxic lubricants and other hazardous fluids makes this job risky, but the fluids used to cool hot cutting tools can be especially dangerous. When workers dunk a white-hot drill into coolant contaminated with bacteria and mold, these particles become airborne and can travel to the workers’ lungs. The body responds with a hefty immune response that inflames the lungs and can trigger fever, weight loss, chronic fatigue, shortness of breath and frequent bouts of coughing.

Researchers only recently traced machine worker’s lung to a bacteria called Mycobacterium, a relative of the bug that causes tuberculosis. Now, a new study has pinpointed the exact proteins that cause the illness, known to doctors as hypersensitivity pneumonitis. The Ohio researchers who performed the study say their discovery will help develop tests to diagnose machine worker’s lung and should speed the formulation of new vaccines and treatments for the condition.

Machinists will have to play it safe until then, but at least now the cause of the mysterious illness is cut and dry.