How Your Work Environment Can Increase Your Risk For Rheumatoid Arthritis

Pollutants in the air can be irritating and harmful. Now, 2022 research published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases has found that common inhalable exposures may actually increase your risk for rheumatoid arthritis (RA). While research has already shown that pollutants in the environment are associated with a risk for RA, this new study discovered more about how occupational exposures, smoking, and genetics combine to heighten your risk.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that not only inflames your joints, but can damage other parts of your body, such as the eyes, lungs, skin, blood vessels, and heart, according to the Mayo Clinic. It causes the joints to swell painfully, which can eventually cause the bone to erode and the joints to deform. Symptoms include joints that feel tender and warm, stiffness that's usually worse when you first wake up, loss of appetite, fever, and fatigue. It may start in your knuckles before progressing to other joints like the ankles, elbows, knees, and hips. In the U.S., 1.5 million Americans live with RA, and 71 people out of 100,000 are diagnosed with it each year (via Healthline). Diagnosis typically happens between the ages of 30 and 60.

The connection between environmental exposures and rheumatoid arthritis

Researchers from Sweden analyzed data from 4,033 people who were a part of the Swedish Epidemiological Investigation of RA (EIRA), along with 6,485 control cases (via U.S. News & World Report). They found that when exposed to workplace pollutants, such as asbestos, diesel fumes, fungicides, gasoline fumes, and carbon monoxide, people were 25% more likely to develop a specific, severe form of RA. This was due to the presence of anti-citrullinated protein antibodies (ACPA). The risk seems to increase according to the number of agents you're exposed to, your length of exposure, smoking, and any genetic risks. Those who smoke and are genetically predisposed are 68 times more at risk for RA when exposed to insecticides. They are 45 times more at risk when exposed to gasoline engine exhaust fumes, and 32 times more at risk when exposed to quartz dust.

Typically, women are two-to-three times more likely to develop RA, according to Healthline. However, men in the study were found to be at higher risk for RA because they had been exposed for longer periods of time (via U.S. News & World Report). The 2022 study published in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases emphasized the importance of workplace protections around occupational respiratory hazards.