ALS risk higher among production workers, those exposed to metals, volatile compounds on job

Sept. 19, 2022
Michigan’s legacy industry and agriculture have led to persistent environmental exposures.

In the 150 years since ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, first came to scientific light, there remains no cure for the progressive, fatal neurodegenerative condition. But more research continues to uncover environmental contaminants’ insidious role in disease development.

Pesticides and carcinogenic compounds have been found at elevated levels in the blood of patients with ALS, which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. And one study works backwards, finding that those working in “production” – fields such as manufacturing, welding and chemical operation – who are exposed to hazardous chemicals on the job, may have increased risk of developing ALS.

A research team at Michigan Medicine surveyed 381 patients with ALS and 272 control participants to analyze self-reported occupational exposures from their four most recent and longest-held jobs. They found that ALS participants reported higher occupational exposure to metals, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds and combustion pollutants prior to diagnosis. In addition, those working in production occupations had a higher risk of ALS. Results are published in Interventional Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health.

Investigators used a combined approach of patient self-reported occupational exposures and job histories, which were evaluated by exposure scientists. Exposure to metals was most strongly linked to ALS, with iron and welding fume exposure among the most common.

Researchers say this is unsurprising as people in jobs with higher metal exposure, particularly in manufacturing and trade industries, are often exposed to mixtures that may also contain particulate matter, like silica, and volatile organic compounds, such as formaldehyde.

U of M Health release