The lymphohaemopoietic system consists of the blood, the bone marrow, the spleen, the thymus, lymphatic channels and lymph nodes. The blood and bone marrow together are referred to as the haematopoietic system. The bone marrow is the site of cell production, continually replacing the cellular elements of the blood (erythrocytes, neutrophils and platelets). Production is under tight control of a group of growth factors. Neutrophils and platelets are used as they perform their physiological functions, and erythrocytes eventually become senescent and outlive their usefulness. For successful function, the cellular elements of the blood must circulate in proper numbers and retain both their structural and physiological integrity. Erythrocytes contain haemoglobin, which permits uptake and delivery of oxygen to tissues to sustain cellular metabolism. Erythrocytes normally survive in the circulation for 120 days while sustaining this function. Neutrophils are found in blood on their way to tissues to participate in the inflammatory response to microbes or other agents. Circulating platelets play a key role in haemostasis.
The production requirement of the bone marrow is a prodigious one. Daily, the marrow replaces 3 billion erythrocytes per kilogram of body weight. Neutrophils have a circulating half-life of only 6 hours, and 1.6 billion neutrophils per kilogram of body weight must be produced each day. The entire platelet population must be replaced every 9.9 days. Because of the need to produce large numbers of functional cells, the marrow is remarkably sensitive to any infectious, chemical, metabolic or environmental insult that impairs DNA synthesis or disrupts the formation of the vital subcellular machinery of the red blood cells, white blood cells or platelets. Further, since the blood cells are marrow progeny, the peripheral blood serves as a sensitive and accurate mirror of bone marrow activity. Blood is readily available for assay via venipuncture, and examination of the blood can provide an early clue of environmentally induced illness.
The haematological system can be viewed as both serving as a conduit for substances entering the body and as an organ system that may be adversely affected by occupational exposures to potentially harmful agents. Blood samples may serve as a biological monitor of exposure and provide a way to assess the effects of occupational exposure on the lymphohaematopoietic system and other body organs.
Environmental agents can interfere with the haematopoietic system in several ways, including inhibition of haemoglobin synthesis, inhibition of cell production or function, leukaemogenesis and increased red blood cell destruction.
Abnormality of blood cell number or function caused directly by occupational hazards can be divided into those for which the haematological problem is the most important health effect, such as benzene-induced aplastic anaemia, and those for which the effects on the blood are direct but of less significance than the effects on other organ systems, such as lead-induced anaemia. Sometimes haematological disorders are a secondary effect of a workplace hazard. For example, secondary polycythaemia can be the result of an occupational lung disease. Table 1 lists those hazards which are reasonably well accepted as having a direct effect on the haematological system.
Table 1. Selected agents implicated in environmentally and occupationally acquired methaemoglobinaemia
- Nitrate-contaminated well water
- Nitrous gases (in welding and silos)
- Aniline dyes
- Food high in nitrates or nitrites
- Mothballs (containing naphthalene)
- Potassium chlorate
Examples of Workplace Hazards Primarily Affecting the Haematological System
Benzene was identified as a workplace poison producing aplastic anaemia in the late 19th century (Goldstein 1988). There is good evidence that it is not benzene itself but rather one or more metabolites of benzene that is responsible for its haematological toxicity, although the exact metabolites and their subcellular targets have yet to be clearly identified (Snyder, Witz and Goldstein 1993).
Implicit in the recognition that benzene metabolism plays a role in its toxicity, as well as recent research on the metabolic processes involved in the metabolism of compounds such as benzene, is the likelihood that there will be differences in human sensitivity to benzene, based upon differences in metabolic rates conditioned by environmental or genetic factors. There is some evidence of a familial tendency towards benzene-induced aplastic anaemia, but this has not been clearly demonstrated. Cytochrome P-450(2E1) appears to play an important role in the formation of haematotoxic metabolites of benzene, and there is some suggestion from recent studies in China that workers with higher activities of this cytochrome are more at risk. Similarly, it has been suggested that Thalassaemia minor, and presumably other disorders in which there is increased bone marrow turnover, may predispose a person to benzene-induced aplastic anaemia (Yin et al. 1996). Although there are indications of some differences in susceptibility to benzene, the overall impression from the literature is that, in contrast to a variety of other agents such as chloramphenicol, for which there is a wide range in sensitivity, even including idiosyncratic reactions producing aplastic anaemia at relatively trivial levels of exposure, there is a virtual universal response to benzene exposure, leading to bone marrow toxicity and eventually aplastic anaemia in a dose-dependent fashion.
The effect of benzene on the bone marrow is thus analogous to the effect produced by chemotherapeutic alkylating agents used in the treatment of Hodgkin’s disease and other cancers (Tucker et al. 1988). With increasing dosage there is a progressive decline in all of the formed elements of the blood, which is sometimes manifested initially as anaemia, leucopenia or thrombocytopenia. It should be noted that it would be most unexpected to observe a person with thrombocytopenia that was not at least accompanied by a low normal level of the other formed blood elements. Further, such an isolated cytopenia would not be expected to be severe. In other words, an isolated white blood count of 2,000 per ml, where the normal range is 5,000 to 10,000, would suggest strongly that the cause of the leucopenia was other than benzene (Goldstein 1988).
The bone marrow has substantial reserve capacity. Following even a significant degree of hypoplasia of the bone marrow as part of a chemotherapeutic regimen, the blood count usually eventually returns to normal. However, individuals who have undergone such treatments cannot respond by producing as high a white blood cell count when exposed to a challenge to their bone marrow, such as endotoxin, as can individuals who have never previously been treated with such chemotherapeutic agents. It is reasonable to infer that there are dose levels of an agent such as benzene which can destroy bone marrow precursor cells and thus affect the reserve capability of the bone marrow without incurring sufficient damage to lead to a blood count that was lower than the laboratory range of normal. Because routine medical surveillance may not reveal abnormalities in a worker who may have indeed suffered from the exposure, the focus on worker protection must be preventive and employ basic principles of occupational hygiene. Although the extent of the development of bone marrow toxicity in relationship to benzene exposure at the workplace remains unclear, it does not appear that a single acute exposure to benzene is likely to cause aplastic anaemia. This observation might reflect the fact that bone marrow precursor cells are at risk only in certain phases of their cell cycle, perhaps when they are dividing, and not all the cells will be in that phase during a single acute exposure. The rapidity with which cytopenia develops depends in part on the circulating lifetime of the cell type. Complete cessation of bone marrow production would lead first to a leucopenia because white blood cells, particularly granulocytic blood cells, persist in circulation for less than a day. Next there would be a decrease in platelets, whose survival time is about ten days. Lastly there would be a decrease in red cells, which survive for a total of 120 days.
Benzene not only destroys the pluripotential stem cell, which is responsible for the production of red blood cells, platelets and granulocytic white blood cells, but it also has been found to cause a rapid loss in circulating lymphocytes in both laboratory animals and in humans. This suggests the potential for benzene to have an adverse effect on the immune system in exposed workers, an effect that has not been clearly demonstrated as yet (Rothman et al. 1996).
Benzene exposure has been associated with aplastic anaemia, which is frequently a fatal disorder. Death usually is caused by infection because the reduction in white blood cells, leucopenia, so compromises the body’s defence system, or by haemorrhage due to the reduction in platelets necessary for normal clotting. An individual exposed to benzene at a workplace who develops a severe aplastic anaemia must be considered to be a sentinel for similar effects in co-workers. Studies based on the discovery of a sentinel individual often have uncovered groups of workers who exhibit obvious evidence of benzene haematotoxicity. For the most part, those individuals who do not succumb relatively quickly to aplastic anaemia will usually recover following removal from the benzene exposure. In one follow-up study of a group of workers who previously had significant benzene-induced pancytopenia (decrease in all blood cell types) there were only minor residual haematological abnormalities ten years later (Hernberg et al. 1966). However, some workers in these groups, with initially relatively severe pancytopenia, progressed in their illnesses by first developing aplastic anaemia, then a myelodysplastic preleukaemic phase, and finally to the eventual development of acute myelogenous leukaemia (Laskin and Goldstein 1977). Such progression of disease is not unexpected since individuals with aplastic anaemia from any cause appear to have a higher-than-expected likelihood of developing acute myelogenous leukaemia (De Planque et al. 1988).
Other causes of aplastic anaemia
Other agents in the workplace have been associated with aplastic anaemia, the most notable being radiation. The effects of radiation on bone marrow stem cells have been employed in the therapy of leukaemia. Similarly, a variety of chemotherapeutic alkylating agents produce aplasia and pose a risk to workers responsible for producing or administering these compounds. Radiation, benzene and alkylating agents all appear to have a threshold level below which aplastic anaemia will not occur.
Protection of the production worker becomes more problematic when the agent has an idiosyncratic mode of action in which minuscule amounts may produce aplasia, such as chloramphenicol. Trinitrotoluene, which is absorbed readily through the skin, has been associated with aplastic anaemia in munition plants. A variety of other chemicals has been reported to be associated with aplastic anaemia, but it is often difficult to determine causality. An example is the pesticide lindane (gamma-benzene hexachloride). Case reports have appeared, generally following relatively high levels of exposure, in which lindane is associated with aplasia. This finding is far from being universal in humans, and there are no reports of lindane-induced bone marrow toxicity in laboratory animals treated with large doses of this agent. Bone marrow hypoplasia has also been associated with exposure to ethylene glycol ethers, various pesticides and arsenic (Flemming and Timmeny 1993).