Diseases Caused by Sulphur Oxides

1. Introduction and Definitions

Sulphur oxides (SOx), primarily sulphur dioxide (SO2) and sulphur trioxide (SO3), are colorless gases with a pungent odor. They are produced from the burning of fossil fuels, smelting of mineral ores that contain sulphur, and various industrial processes. Exposure to sulphur oxides can cause significant health issues, particularly affecting the respiratory system. This article provides comprehensive information on diseases caused by sulphur oxides, targeting occupational health nurses and doctors.

2. Agent Causes the Disease

Exposure to sulphur oxides occurs primarily through inhalation of their gases and particles. Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is more prevalent and is a major air pollutant. It can react in the atmosphere to form sulphuric acid, which contributes to acid rain. In industrial settings, workers can be exposed to sulphur oxides during processes such as fuel combustion, metal smelting, and chemical manufacturing.

3. Workers at Risk of This Disease

Several occupations and tasks put workers at higher risk of exposure to sulphur oxides, including:

  • Power Plant Workers: Exposed to SO2 from the combustion of coal and oil.
  • Metal Smelting Workers: Exposed to SO2 released during the smelting of sulphur-containing ores.
  • Chemical Manufacturing Workers: Handling sulphuric acid and other sulphur-containing compounds.
  • Petroleum Refinery Workers: Exposed to SO2 during the refining process.
  • Pulp and Paper Industry Workers: Using sulphur compounds in the production of paper.
  • Construction and Demolition Workers: Exposed to SO2 from the use of explosives and other sulphur-containing materials.

4. Symptoms

Symptoms of diseases caused by sulphur oxides exposure can vary depending on the level and duration of exposure:

  • Acute Exposure: Symptoms include respiratory irritation (coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath), eye irritation (redness, tearing), and throat irritation. High levels of exposure can lead to severe respiratory distress and pulmonary edema.
  • Chronic Exposure: Long-term exposure can cause chronic bronchitis, asthma-like symptoms, and decreased lung function. It can also exacerbate existing respiratory conditions.

5. Diagnosis

Diagnosing diseases caused by sulphur oxides involves a combination of clinical evaluation, occupational exposure assessment, and specific tests:

  • Medical History and Physical Examination: Detailed assessment of the patient's work history and symptoms.
  • Pulmonary Function Tests: To assess lung function and detect any obstructive or restrictive patterns.
  • Chest X-rays or CT Scans: Imaging to detect lung inflammation, fibrosis, or other damage.
  • Blood Gas Analysis: To measure the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood, indicating respiratory distress or failure.
  • Bronchoscopy: To directly visualize and assess the condition of the respiratory tract, if necessary.

6. Treatment

Treatment for diseases caused by sulphur oxides focuses on managing symptoms and preventing further exposure:

  • Remove from Exposure: Immediate removal from the source of sulphur oxides exposure is crucial.
  • Symptomatic Treatment: Providing medications to manage respiratory symptoms, such as bronchodilators and corticosteroids, and treatments for eye and throat irritation.
  • Supportive Care: Including hydration, rest, and monitoring of respiratory function.
  • Emergency Care: In cases of severe exposure, providing oxygen therapy, mechanical ventilation, and intensive care as needed.
  • Long-term Monitoring: Regular follow-up to monitor lung function, manage chronic respiratory conditions, and assess overall health status.

7. Prevention

Preventing diseases caused by sulphur oxides involves implementing strict control measures in the workplace:

  • Engineering Controls: Using local exhaust ventilation, enclosed processes, and proper maintenance of equipment to reduce airborne exposure to sulphur oxides.
  • Work Practices: Implementing safe work practices such as proper handling and disposal of sulphur-containing materials, and avoiding eating, drinking, or smoking in areas where sulphur oxides are used.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Providing and ensuring the use of appropriate respirators, protective clothing, gloves, and eye protection.
  • Health Surveillance: Regular health screenings, including pulmonary function tests and monitoring of respiratory health for workers exposed to sulphur oxides.
  • Education and Training: Informing workers about the hazards of sulphur oxides and safe work practices to minimize exposure.

Workplace Exposure Limits:

  1. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration):

    • Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL): 5 ppm (parts per million) averaged over an 8-hour work shift.
  2. NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health):