Each day of the week, about 380,000 welders across the country wake up in the early hours of the morning. They arrive at their designated welding sites shortly after, put on heavy gloves, boots, and visors, and fire up their welding torches. And so begins 8 long hours of exposure to screeching metal and flying sparks.
Welding is jokingly described in the industry as “playing with fire.” During a typical day of work, a welder is exposed to excessive heat, smoke, metal splinters, and dirt. But until recently, it rarely crossed a welder’s mind that they could be in danger of contracting a deadly disorder.
New Study Shows Lethal Outcomes of Welding
According to a study by the department of neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, welders are in danger of developing symptoms similar to those of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the brain. This is worsened by the fumes from welding, which contain manganese, a mineral that can be hazardous to health over long periods of time.
The study found a link between welding and so-called “parkinsonism,” meaning movement problems typically displayed by those with Parkinson’s disease. These include muscle stiffness, slow movement, tremors, speech problems, and frozen facial expressions.
Neurologists examined 886 workers at 2 shipyards and a fabrication shop, 400 of whom they followed for a decade to monitor manganese exposure. Of the group, 15 percent developed parkinsonism. They also found that workers who specialize in flux core arc welding are most prone to manganese exposure in a confined space.
“These welders are developing parkinsonian symptoms even though their exposure to manganese is below the current regulatory limits,” said study author Dr. Brad Racette.
Although this study did not directly prove that manganese causes symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, it suggests that even low levels of exposure to manganese can have devastating effects.
Sadly, other occupations also come with risks of Parkinson's from toxic exposure. Farmers, their families, and neighbors, for instance, may be at risk of developing Parkinson's if they've been exposed to paraquat, a common industrial weedkiller in the U.S.
A High-Risk Occupation
Parkinson’s, however, is not the only disease that has been linked to welders. In the past, occupational exposure to manganese has also been linked to:
- Neurological impairments, such as changes in mood and short term memory
- Lethal pneumonia
- Work-related asthma
- Metal fume fever
- Occupational cancers, such as mesothelioma and lung cancer
Mesothelioma is an incurable disease that is caused exclusively by asbestos. Traditionally, welders were exposed to asbestos because they often worked with products containing the lethal mineral. These included welding rods, which both contained and were coated with asbestos. In using these products, dust and particles were released into the air and inhaled by welders, who were not required to wear sufficient protective gear over their mouths.
Other occupations exposed to high rates of asbestos include firefighters, veterans of the U.S. armed forces (in particular the U.S. Navy), electricians, plumbers, construction workers, auto mechanics, and shipyard workers.
By the 1970s, it became apparent that these workers — and their families, from secondary exposure — were in grave danger on the job. Only much later did suggestions of Parkinson’s disease risks come to light.
Strong Links Found, but Still Uncertain
More evidence is needed to fully understand the role of manganese in causing parkinsonism and other metals that may contribute to these symptoms. But what the Washington University School of Medicine is certain of is that increased exposure to manganese is not good news.
Dr. Racette pointed out the study’s limitations: for example, the study was based on a survey of the workers rather than direct measurement of manganese exposure. But, he added:
“This study suggests that we need more stringent workplace monitoring of manganese exposure, greater use of protective equipment and monitoring, and systematic assessment of workers to prevent this disabling disease.”