Work-related lung disease takes a heavy toll in America. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health — NIOSH, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — estimates that nearly 39,000 people die each year of COPD, lung cancer, pneumoconiosis (dust-induced lung disease), mesothelioma (an asbestos-linked malignancy usually found in the covering of the lung) and asthma related to on-the-job exposures. By comparison, 31,672 people were killed by guns in 2010, according to the CDC.
Millions more workers annually are thought to contract these diseases, though a doctor may not always make the connection between, say, a case of COPD and a patient’s dusty or fume-laden workplace.
In James Sawyer’s case, the tie was fairly easy to see. Hard-metal disease, a type of pneumoconiosis, is quite rare. Characterized by giant cells with multiple nuclei in the air sacs of the lung, it is found in workers exposed to cobalt through the production and processing of diamond-hard, tungsten carbide metal, or through the inhalation of dust or fumes given off by grinding or cutting.
“Pretty much anybody who gets hard-metal disease wouldn’t have gotten it unless they had a workplace exposure,” said Dr. David Weissman, director of NIOSH’s Division of Respiratory Disease Studies.
Sawyer started in the machine shop at the 550-acre Newport News shipyard — now known as Newport News...