Rheumatoid arthritis in low-level toluene-exposed workers based on nationwide medical surveillance data in Korea


Background: There is growing evidence that exposure to organic solvents can play a role in the etiology of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). This prospective cohort study aimed to investigate the association between RA and toluene exposure.

Methods: The study cohort consisted of Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency data from male workers exposed to toluene who had undergone a toluene-associated special medical examination at least once between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2004 (n = 148,870). The morbidity from RA based on hospital admission records was estimated from 2000 to 2005 using National Health Insurance Claim Data. The standardized admission ratio (SAR) for RA was calculated with reference to the general population. Levels of urinary hippuric acid (HA), a metabolite of toluene, were measured and used for exposure assessment.

Results: Toluene-exposed workers were at an elevated risk of seropositive rheumatoid arthritis (ICD-10 code M05) with an SAR of 2.38 (95% confidence interval [CI]: 1.14-4.37) and other rheumatoid arthritis (M06) with an SAR of 1.22 (95% CI: 0.91-1.59). When data were stratified according to the duration of toluene exposure and by tertiles of urinary HA level, no significant difference was apparent. Conclusion: SARs of the toluene-exposed workers are higher than that of the general reference population, indicating that exposure to toluene may contribute to an increased risk of RA. Further studies of toluene-exposed workers with longer follow-up are needed.

Authors: Young-Sun Min, Sungho Lee, Mingi Kim, Yeon-Soon Ahn
; Full Source: American journal of industrial medicine 2021 Jan 29. doi: 10.1002/ajim.23226.