An epidemiological survey of 414 English and 980 Dutch male cotton workers was undertaken to determine the prevalence of byssinosis and respiratory symptoms, and to compare the ventilatory capacities in the two populations, with particular reference to the influence of air pollution. The English workers were employed in six mills in Lancashire and the Dutch workers in three mills in Almelo spinning similar grades of cotton.
The methods used included a questionnaire on respiratory symptoms and illnesses, the collection and examination of sputum, and the measurement of the forced expiratory volume over 0·75 sec. Concentrations of smoke and sulphur dioxide were measured in the English and Dutch towns.
The crude rates for byssinosis were similar, 13·5% and 17% respectively in the English and Dutch card and blow rooms, and 1·5% and 1·6% respectively in the spinning rooms. The English workers had significantly higher prevalences of persistent cough and persistent phlegm and significantly lower indirect maximum breathing capacities. These findings were supported by the results of a sputum survey. Nearly twice as many English produced specimens, and the mean volume of sputum was greater for the English workers.
The prevalence of bronchitis, defined as persistent phlegm and at least one chest illness during the past three years, causing absence from work, was higher in the English than in the Dutch workers in both types of work room, but not significantly so after standardizing for differences in age. Since there are important differences in the social security systems of the two countries, which may encourage more absence from illness among the Dutch, a comparison of bronchitis thus defined is likely to be invalid.
The higher prevalences of respiratory symptoms and lower ventilatory capacities in the English are unlikely to be due to observer error. They are discussed in relation to smoking habits, exposure to cotton dust, and air pollution. The most likely explanation of the unfavourable picture presented by the English workers is the much higher level of air pollution in Lancashire.