KARACHI, Dec 26: A recent study shows a high prevalence of various respiratory illnesses and symptoms among textile workers in the city.

The study titled ‘Pattern and predictors for respiratory illnesses, symptoms and lung functions among textile workers in Karachi’ was conducted by the Aga Khan University’s (AKU) department of community health sciences in collaboration with the University of Alabama’s School of Public Health.

Published in an online foreign journal, the study is a cross-sectional survey of 372 adult men working in spinning and weaving sections of 15 textile mills in Karachi — one each from Korangi/Landhi industrial areas and North Karachi industrial area, two from Federal B. Area’s industrial area, four each from the Sindh Industrial Trading Estate and the SITE area on the Superhighway. One textile mill each from Ittehad town, Baldia town and SITE Nooriabad were also included.

Findings of the study show that there is a high prevalence of various respiratory illnesses and their symptoms in textile workers. The symptoms include shortness of breath (46.8 pc), frequent wheezing (39.8pc), byssinosis — a chronic asthma like narrowing of the airways generally caused by exposure to cotton processing — (10.5pc), chest tightness (33.3pc), chronic phlegm (12.9pc) and chronic cough (7.5pc).

However, it has been found that the prevalence of asthma is comparatively low, four per cent. According to the study this finding was consistent with local research conducted earlier but warranting further investigation. It has also been found that eight per cent of the workers have obstructive, eight per cent restrictive and two per cent have a mixed pattern of lung function abnormality.

Out of the 372 men who took part in the study, 46.8 per cent were employed in the spinning section and 53.2 per cent in the weaving section. A majority of workers, 57.8pc, were non-smokers and 34.6pc were smokers. The remaining 7.5pc had quit smoking.

Regarding work duration, the study reveals that 31.7pc workers have been working in textile mills for one to five years, 35.5pc for six to 10 years and 32.8pc have worked for 11 years or more. A majority of the workers, 73.9pc, are educated with a median monthly household income of Rs1,714 per person.

The study states that workers of the spinning section working long hours, mostly uneducated and belonging to Sindhi-speaking families, are more prone to developing one or more respiratory conditions.

“Respiratory illnesses and symptoms, including byssinosis, have been reported by workers across the globe employed at various processes in the textile industry. Over the years, the prevalence of byssinosis has gradually declined in developed countries due to improvements in dust control measures. However, the situation in developing countries is still worse, where large numbers of textile workers continue to suffer from respiratory illnesses,” states the study.

The research also highlights factors more likely to be associated with respiratory illnesses and symptoms among textile workers. The factors include working in bale opening, blowing, carding, spinning sections of the textile mill besides smoking, lack of education, not using safety gadgets, high exposure to endotoxins and long working hours.

Smoking, according to the study, combined with cotton dust has an additive effect on respiratory symptoms and pulmonary functions of textile workers.

In Pakistan few studies have assessed the prevalence of respiratory illnesses. Research conducted in the 1990s had found that prevalence of byssinosis was around 8pc to 15pc, chronic bronchitis or asthma 3.6pc and lung function abnormality 20pc to 38pc.

Regarding two recent studies published from Karachi in 2008, the study says that they reported a higher prevalence (19.3pc to 35.6pc) of byssinosis as compared to earlier studies. “These studies found that factors associated with respiratory illnesses and symptoms include working in spinning, ring and carding areas, low educational status and not using face masks,” it states.

Referring to Sindh government statistics, the study says that Karachi has 794 registered textile units with approximately 40,500 workers who are primarily involved in spinning and weaving of cotton and synthetic textiles.

“In multivariate analysis,” says the study, “it was found that the spinning section of textile mills was consistently associated with most of the respiratory symptoms including frequent wheezing, chronic wheezing and chest tightness.”

Giving the reason, the study says that dust concentration is higher during initial processing involving cruder forms of cotton.

Also, concentrations of gram-negative bacterial endotoxins, thought to cause byssinosis, are also higher in the initial processing. “Therefore, workers employed in these sections are more likely to suffer from byssinosis compared with other sections,” it concludes.

Though the presence of endotoxins increases the risk of respiratory illnesses such as byssinosis, on the other hand it can also protect from atopic asthama, allergies, lung cancer and possibly liver cancer.

The researchers who took part in the study were Dr Asaad Ahmed Nafees, Dr Zafar Fatmi, Dr Mohammad Masood Kadir and Dr Nalini Sathiakumar.