Monday, February 13, 2006

Brown Lung Disease
Discussed in Lesson 1 of ECN 200

Brown Lung Disease, also called Byssinosis, is a lung disease that results from prolonged (often ten years or more) exposure to breathing of cotton fibers present in the air during the production of cloth from raw cotton (in the U.S. most textile mills process cotton fiber so the most common cause of Byssinosis in the U.S. is cotton fiber, in other countries it is caused by flax, hemp or other material fibers as well as cotton).

It is believed that byssinosis is the result of constant irritation and/or release of toxic substances by the fiber on the lungs over a long period of time. Byssinosis is characterized by shortness of breath, feelings of tightness in the chest and constant coughing. Continued exposure after onset of disease results in a reduced ability to breathe, especially exhale, which is very similar to the symptoms experienced by people with chronic bronchitis. There is some indication that smoking or occurrence of other lung ailments aggravates byssinosis. While "brown lung" is the term used to describe the condition, patients' lungs do not turn brown as a result of the disease.

According to the video and statistics cited by OSHA at the time of the implementation of safety standards to prevent the disease in 1978, about 100,000 or about 20% of the workers in textile mills in the U.S. were AT RISK of contracting the disease. After implementation of the new rules, OSHA statistics showed that between 1979 and 1996 an estimated 35,000 current and former textile workers (due to long period needed to develop the disease, most of these probably contracted the disease in the years prior to the implementation of the safety standards) actually had the disease and, of these, between 120 and 188 died from it in the period 1979-1996.

While it was unfortunate that some workers contracted the disease and a few died of byssinosis, the cost of the cure according to your book was the loss of 300,000 jobs in the textile industry in the U.S. Additional jobs were probably lost in service industries that provided goods and services to the workers (stores, restaurants, bars, banks, etc. all of which would have seen business decline and would have laid off workers due to loss of business from the unemployed textile workers) and services to the companies themselves (delivery people, suppliers of raw materials, machinery, etc.). In many cases the impact of the closing of textile factories could be tremendous in cases where the textile company was the major employer in the area. Also, for many of the workers jobs in the textile mills were probably both one of the few jobs for which they had skills and the textile jobs probably paid more than the few other low skill jobs.

Why was the actual rate of disease and death so low? There are a number of possible reasons. First, the disease generally occurs only after long exposure to breathing the cotton fibers. Many people got a start in the textile mills and then moved on to work in another industry. Second, many of those who spent their careers in the textile mills only spent part of their career or part of their working time in those parts of the factory floor where the fibers were concentrated. Finally, contracting the disease and the severity of it once contracted can be related to one's overall health. People with weak lungs are probably at greater risk than those with healthy lungs. Secondly, smoking and other activities that harm or weaken the lungs will increase the risk of byssinosis and this risk will be even greater in people whose lungs are weak to begin with.

While we cannot dismiss the deaths of 188 or so workers or the debilitating illness of 35,000 workers as an acceptable cost for the saving of over 300,000 jobs. But, at the same time, it is difficult to justify drastic actions that severely harm many to save a few especially when there are other alternatives. As your text and video pointed out, in the case of byssinosis, a mask that cost $1.49 per worker would have been a low cost interim solution. True, the masks were uncomfortable but that was better than losing one's job in a job market with few other possibilities. As companies renovated factories and built new ones they would have installed the new equipment in an effort to keep their existing labor force and attract new workers from the firms that had older factories. But incorporating new technology into the building of a new factory is considerably less expensive than attempting to retrofit new equipment into an existing structure.

The study of economics should show you that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Everything has costs and all economic activity involves tradeoffs between costs and benefits. The goal should be to find production processes that yield the most benefits with the least cost. But more importantly, activists and policy makers should consider the implications of the policies they are pushing. The workers in the textile mills were free to choose between keeping their jobs and risking the possibility of contracting byssinosis or seeking a different job. While their options may have been limited, they were still in the best position to analyze their personal situation and make a decision. Instead, union officials, Congressmen, bureaucrats, Supreme Court Justices, etc. in Washington and other places far from the textile mills and with jobs that would be unaffected by their decisions, made the decisions that cost over 300,000 textile workers their jobs.

For more information on lung diseases and occupational dangers affecting lung health see the
American Lung Association web page.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The cost of care for one brown lung patient in long term respiratory failure can FAR out weighs the cost of retrofit of a single mill, muchless disposable masks. And when you speak of choice, there was no to little choices economically in towns such as Gastonia NC or Columbus GA for income. The mills owned the employer, the stores and homes. Endentured Servitude is what mill villages were. The mills actually had a postion/job called--"blower." That was the guy with an air hose that blew off the fibers off the equipment and also the employees as they exited mill. Let's let common sense run that little movie in front of our mind's eye and say We weren't wrong with a straight face.