Byssinosis: The Brown Lung Disease on Textile Workers

Brown lung disease (also known as byssinosis, cotton bract disease, and cotton worker’s lung) is defined as an occupational respiratory disease caused by the long-term inhalation of cotton, flax, or hemp dust and characterized by shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing. The expression brown lung comes from the brown dust on the leaves surrounding the cotton balls.

Dusts from cotton, flax and hemp may cause byssinosis, which is a chronic ailment that obstructs tiny lung airways that severely impairs lung function. Textile workers dealing raw cotton bales exposed with dangerous risk for developing the lung disease. Byssinosis occurs mainly in people who work with hemp, flax, or cotton dust and therefore is prevalent in the textile industry.


Symptoms may include chest tightness and wheezing. A protracted cough may develop in the individual as well. Symptoms are more apparent in early work week and gradually lessen when the individual is far from the work location. People who dealt with unprocessed cotton longer than a year may reveal an entire work week in agony.

In the early stages, byssinosis can lead to shortness of breath and coughing while at work (otherwise known as acute byssinosis). When the worker is removed from the dusty environment, as at home or on vacation, these symptoms improve or disappear. After approximately five years or longer of constant exposure, the worker may develop chronic byssinosis, which may lead to permanent impairment of lung function.

The inhalation of cotton dust was first identified as a source of respiratory disease more than 300 years ago. However, byssinosis has only been known as an occupational danger for workers in textile industry for the past fifty years.

In the United States, byssinosis is limited to workers who work with unprocessed cotton. Overall, more than 35,000 textile workers have been disabled by byssinosis and 183 workers died between 1979 and 1992. The majority of those whose deaths were due to byssinosis lived in the textile-producing regions of North Carolina and South Carolina. These deaths directly contributed to the development of the Brown Lung Association.

History of the Brown Lung Association (1974-1986)

The Brown Lung Association was formed by Mike Szpak in 1974. The Association organized local divisions (which were originally located in both North Carolina and South Carolina, with other divisions formed later in Georgia and Virginia), conducted breathing clinics on textile workers, conducted media campaigns on the dangers of brown lung, lobbied for government aide for the workers, and filed workers’ compensation claims on behalf of the textile employees. The Brown Lung Association’s chief accomplishments included the reform of South Carolina’s compensation laws, passage for more stringent federal cotton dust standards, attraction of media attention to the dangers of brown lung, and payment of workers’ compensation to those employees disabled by the disease. The Brown Lung Legal Center emerged from the Brown Lung Association’s Legal Committee in the late 1970s. It focused on the legal difficulties of receiving compensation for brown lung victims. The activities of the Brown Lung Association declined during the early 1980s, primarily as a result of deteriorating economic conditions in the textile industry as well as reforms in workers’ compensation laws and industrial standards. By 1986, the Brown Lung Association was virtually dormant.

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  1. A very important article to anyone who has worked in cotton mills, especialy older people. The mills are so modern now that I doubt this disease occurs anymore. We have so few cotton mills or sewing plants left in our area. Most of our factory jobs have gone to other countries.

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