Working in a cotton mill has bright side

People who work amid bales of raw cotton are less likely to get lung cancer than are people in the general population, a study of Chinese women indicates.

While past research has shown that workers in a cotton mill tend to develop shortness of breath, chronic cough, and other health problems, some scientists also noted less lung cancer than they had expected.

In the first long-term study to quantify such anticancer effects, researchers tapped into a huge database of Shanghai women who worked in various textile mills. They identified 628 women with lung cancer and 3,184 women who didn’t have the disease. Women with heavy workplace exposure to raw-cotton dust were 40 percent less likely to develop lung cancer than were women not exposed, the researchers report in the March 7 Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

A separate calculation revealed that for every 100,000 Shanghai women exposed heavily to raw-cotton dust on the job, fewer than 8 develop lung cancer. In contrast, 19 were women per 100,000 in the city’s population as a whole had lung cancer.

The raw cotton processed in these weaving mills contains bacteria that make a chemical called an endotoxin that can irritate the lungs, says study coauthor George Astrakianakis, an industrial hygienist at the Occupational Health and Safety Agency for Healthcare in Vancouver, British Columbia. Some studies have suggested that chronic inflammation, which endotoxins can induce, may contribute to cancer. However, Astrakianakis hypothesizes, endotoxin exposure might also spur other immune reactions that counteract inflammation, offering protection against lung cancer.

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