A Cluster of Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis Cases

New data are being uncovered that shows dental personnel are at risk for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.


In 2016, a Virginia dentist who had been recently diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) was being treated at a specialty clinic. The CDC was contacted to report concerns that IPF had been diagnosed in multiple dentists, also from Virginia, who had also sought treatment at the same specialty clinic.

CDC researchers reviewed medical records of 894 patients treated for IPF at the tertiary care center between 1996-2017. They found 8 patients were dentists and 1 was a dental technician. Seven of the patients had died.

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is a chronic, progressive, fibrosing interstitial pneumonia. This is the first known described cluster of IPF among dental personnel, the CDC says. Although no clear etiology could be found, it is possible that occupational exposure contributed to the development of IPF. Viral infections, cigarette smoking, and exposure to dust, wood dust, and metal dust have been implicated. One of the surviving patients reported polishing dental appliances and preparing amalgams and impressions without respiratory protection, which could have exposed him to silica, alginate, and other compounds with known or potential respiratory toxicity.

The CDC researchers note that dental personnel are exposed to infectious agents, chemicals, airborne particulates, ionizing radiation, and other potentially hazardous materials. They cite the case of a dentist who died of respiratory failure. Postmortem analysis identified pneumoconiosis; examination of lung tissue revealed particles consistent with alginate impression powders.

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis has not previously been described among dental personnel, the researchers say. But when they queried the National Occupational Respiratory Mortality System for “other interstitial pulmonary diseases with fibrosis” listed as the underlying or contributing cause of death, they found 35 decedents categorized as having worked in dentists’ offices or as dentists. During 2016, dentists accounted for an estimated 0.038% of US residents, yet represented 0.893% of patients being treated for IPF at a tertiary care center—nearly a 23-fold difference. Those findings suggest, the researchers say, that a higher rate of IPF might occur among dental personnel than among the general population.

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