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People who are exposed to textile dust at work have an increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, according to a study published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.

The researchers also found that these workers had a heightened risk of genetic susceptibility to developing antibodies to rheumatoid arthritis, known as ACPA, which hasten progression of the disease.

This is the first time that such associations have been identified, the BMJ reported.

The findings were based on 910 Malaysian women who had been diagnosed with early stage rheumatoid arthritis and 910 women of similar age, but free of the disease.

All of the women were asked if they had ever worked in the textile industry and had been exposed to other chemicals and silica dust — factors that are associated with heightened risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

Results showed that occupational exposure to textile dust was significantly associated with an increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis (RA): 41 of the women with RA (4.5%) had been exposed to textile dust compared with 15 (1.7%) of the women free of the disease.

In other words, those who had been exposed to textile dust were almost three times as likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis as those who had not worked in textiles.

Textile dust exposure was also associated with a more than doubling in risk of testing positive for ACPA.

The BMJ noted that this was an observational study, so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect.

What´s more, the properties of textile dust differ, depending on the fabric and the chemicals used in production of the material, such as dyes, flame retardants and water repellents.

“The association between textile dust and risk of rheumatoid arthritis might involve several potential disease mechanisms since the differing physiochemical properties of airborne dust affect where it deposits in the respiratory tract,” the researchers said.

One possible explanation is that the shape of textile fibres enables them to penetrate deep into the lungs, where they could prompt an inflammatory response. Alternatively, toxins produced by certain types of bacteria that can be found in textile dust may cause respiratory disease in textile workers by generating an inflammatory response in the lungs.

Whatever the underlying mechanism, the results imply that efforts should be considered to reduce the incidence of rheumatoid arthritis by reducing occupational exposure to textile dust, the researchers conclude.